A dilapidated town house in New York was once home to a diverse community of writers and artists, including exiled composer Benjamin Britten, the writers WH Auden and Carson McCullers, and stripper and burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee.
Britten in Brooklyn, a play by Zoe Lewis, travels back to 1940 to recall the group’s lives together – the parties and affairs – and how their bohemian idyll fell apart once the reality of the Second World War took hold.
Actress and celebrity Sadie Frost is poised to take up the role of Gypsy when the play opens this month at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Speaking to the East End Review, Frost says the play enticed her to take time out from her film production company and burgeoning fashion label.
“The script got sent to me, and I thought it was just so beautifully written,” explains the 51-year-old mother of four, whose previous acting credits include a leading role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the iconic music video for Pulp’s Common People.
“There’s such diverse range of characters and you all get them vying for attention and challenging each other in their relationships.
“It’s also very apt because it’s all about the propaganda just before the Second World War, about borders and whether to let people in or look after yourself and your own.”
Frost starred in Zoe Lewis’s one-woman play, Touched … For the Very First Time, back in 2010, but describes this new play as “a very different type of writing”.
“It’s political, historical, farcical, funny, and has so many elements,” she says.
Frost was drawn to the character of Gypsy Rose Lee, a theatrical entertainer whose extraordinary life was made into a film and Stephen Sondheim musical.
“She grew up in a poverty stricken family with her mum and sister, and they were on the road entertaining, going from village to village and trying to make ends meet,” Frost says.
Gypsy was a pioneer of the art of striptease, reciting poetry or whilst peeling off a glove or flinging a ribbon to her howling admirers.
“She had this amazing comedic quality, and didn’t really take her clothes off,” Frost says. “She just alluded to it but in such a funny way that people were really mesmerised.”
In its Victorian heyday, Wilton’s Music Hall was home to hedonists of all stripes, and Frost says the venue’s “old school” authenticity is sure to add to the play.
“It’s this love soup where they’re all living together in this crazy way, talking about Picasso and Dali,” she says.
Frost herself is no stranger to a bohemian style of life. During her “chaotic but positive” childhood in Islington, she and her siblings were forbidden from saying “No” or “Sorry”, and, as a test of character, forced to refer to objects as the most opposite things they could think of.
And during the 1990s Frost was part of the party-loving ‘Primrose Hill’ set, alongside model Kate Moss.
The lives of artists, entertainers and writers have long been characterised as louche hedonists, with their ‘loose morals’ questioned by the socially conservative.
But today’s young artists, with piles of student debt and worries about jobs, seem, anecdotally at least, a more sensible breed.
“I can think of times when I’ve been with a few friends and we’re having a real laugh and it’s all been quite decadent,” Frost recalls.
“But no, now we’re all quite serious and rather grown up and have far too much responsibility.
“So this hedonistic scenario where all these people are living in this crazy way is nice to see though,” she adds as a caveat, “people do fall apart if they live it”.
Britten in Brooklyn
31 August – 17 September
Wilton’s Music Hall
1 Grace’s Alley