Seeing Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ a couple of performances before the end of its six week London run, I was unsure what to expect. Staging it has been an epic achievement in itself; however while an eight-hour production is guaranteed to attract attention, whether it is an enjoyable experience is a different matter. The fact that GATZ held our attention for three times as long as a normal performance is testament to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, to the ingenuity of John Collins’ staging and the stamina of the cast (in particular the amazing endurance of Scott Shepherd). For those who have been involved with the project since its inception in the late ‘90s it is clearly a labour of love, and Shepherd has committed the entirety of the 49,000 word novel to memory.
Having booked the cheapest tickets for the performance, with a seat at the back of the Noël Coward Theatre’s balcony, I was slightly worried that after eight hours I’d come to regret my frugality. However, apart from the heads of those leaning forward I had a good view of the stage, and ample leg room. I wondered if the audience might thin after the dinner break, but in the balcony there were only a couple of newly vacant seats. While there were a few moments when the pace slowed and I found my attention drifting, on the whole GATZ was thoroughly engaging; I’ve sat through plays a third of the length that were far less interesting. Starting with an office worker who discovers a copy of the book and begins to read it aloud, his co-workers begin to occupy the roles of the characters. The office workers are under-developed, with the actors not coming to prominence until they take on the roles from the novel. Yet once they have, the cast tells the story effectively – evoking wealth and exuberance despite the dreary office backdrop.
Despite the excellent support of the rest of the cast, I felt that one of the most successful parts of the play was the end, which was effectively a half-hour monologue by Shepherd as he leaves the book and speaks directly to the audience. I heard a fellow audience member on the train sum up the experience well; that although he was glad he had been, and he had enjoyed the experience, he wasn’t sure that he could do it again. Which makes the commitment and stamina of the cast all the more astonishing.