It was fine, as maybe Dixie thought first time round, until they burned Atlanta. I was beginning to think that the director, Trevor Nunn, had pulled off the impossible and made sense not only of Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-page novel but the book, music and lyrics penned by one Margaret Martin, a writer hitherto best known for Pregnancy and Childbirth: the Basic Illustrated Guide (but who had somehow acquired the musical rights from the Mitchell estate).
The storytelling was clear, John Napier's set uncluttered, and the central triangle of Scarlett the selfish Southern belle, Ashley the Southern gentleman and Rhett the Southern cad as robust as ever. An interesting symmetry even began to emerge, with both men agnostic when it came to the Southern cause and both fighting for a woman who believed in nothing. True, there was no dancing to speak of and no songs worth the humming, but the evening was proceeding painlessly.
But once Atlanta had gone up in flames - represented by a blazing Confederate flag and a partial demolition of the set - I began to worry. Scarlett and Rhett rode out of town on a cart drawn by an invisible horse. You wanted them to go clop clop. Although Nunn was using the techniques he pioneered in Nicholas Nickleby - characters commentating on their own stories and voicing their thought bubbles - we were being pushed into the trickery of budget troupes such as Shared Experience. The first half ended with a song that, I fear, contained the lyric "The world I used to know so well/Why did it have to turn into a living hell?"
I must congratulate Vanessa Feltz on her prescience. Of all the B-list celebs papering the stalls on the first night - Joan Collins, Christopher Biggins, Babs Windsor - she was the only one not to return after the interval. She would have been in for another hour and 45 minutes during which the show lost all focus. For scenes at a time Rhett, Scarlett and Ashley disappeared from view to make way for discussions, sometimes set to music, of political reform, impeachment and splits in the Republican Party. In a misguided attempt to make this story of self-involved Southern whites politically correct, attention turned to the liberated slaves and their songs of freedom.
And those songs! They began to scale the depths. Refrains included "Born to Be Free", "These Are Desperate Times", "The Wings of the Dove", until the inevitable "Tomorrow Is Another Day". This was cliché orchestrated in the hope it would make it less of a cliché. It merely magnified the assault on the language. And still there was not a memorable tune, a curious crime when the 1939 film had one of the greatest theme tunes ever, by Max Steiner. The original cast recording from this stage musical would be a gift for your worst enemy.
The storytelling became confused. Scarlett shot a Yankee soldier and stole his looted money and jewellery but was still so broke that when the farm got a big tax bill she went begging to Rhett, in jail, for a handout. And Rhett? How come one moment he was facing the noose and the next he was out of jail and profiteering again? Interest was captured only a couple of times: when Rhett and Scarlett's daughter was thrown to her death from an invisible horse (the mime was effective this time) and when Rhett scooped Scarlett off her feet and made to rape her. This, worryingly, got a big cheer from the first-night audience, as did, of course, his "Frankly my dear" line, though I doubt whether either of the Margarets meant Scarlett by this stage to be quite so unlikeable.
I feel sorry for Jill Paice as Scarlett, who worked hard to engage our sympathy and could certainly deliver a song. Darius Danesh, him off Pop Idol, scored a personal triumph as Rhett. Admittedly his mike was turned way up but he commanded the stage, kept his accent together and even found a new way to say "I don't give a damn" so as to make it his own. Edward Baker-Duly brought moments of pathos and depth to Ashley. But this is where my plaudits stop, somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Funnily enough, having entered thinking a musical of Gone With the Wind utterly pointless, I left believing the right one could work very well. Not this one, however, not without a 45-minute cut and some songs. Then it might be salvageable. Otherwise, tomorrow is another play.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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