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This play is about the period during the first half of the Second World War when Benjamin Britten was in exile in New York City, staying with his friend W H Auden in a sort of up-market arty commune in a Brooklyn brownstone, with the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar as their mentor.  Gypsy Rose Lee and novelist Carson McCullers also stayed there, and people like Picasso and Dali regularly dropped in. The parties were renowned and the lifestyle hedonistic. During their time there, Britten and Auden wrote the ground-breaking but poorly received American folk operetta Paul Bunyan. Playwright Zoe Lewis and director Oli Rose have turned this fascinating situation into a deeply dull play.

It starts with a flash forward to Britten’s tribunal (on his return) as a conscientious objector. Much is made, in flashbacks, of his mother’s recent death. A British Naval Officer comes to make the British exiles situation clear, though on what authority, in a foreign land, is unclear. Other than that, it’s mostly dull conversations, excessive drinking and the on-off lesbian relationship between Lee & McCullers. It doesn’t really go anywhere and the journey is very dull. 

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to convey such an interesting situation with just four main characters. The absence of Britten’s partner Peter Pears in particular is mystifying; they were virtually inseparable. The characters are merely sketched and both the structure and dialogue are weak. Ryan Sampson and John Hollingsworth do the best they can with the material they’re given to create Britten and Auden respectively. Ruby Bentall tries too hard and seems uncomfortable conveying McCullers masculinity. Sadie Frost doesn’t really act, she poses.

A big disappointment.

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