mon 17/06/2024

Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic Theatre

Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic Theatre

Tennessee Williams' drama soars and Kim Cattrall shines in Marianne Elliott's superb production

Pillow talk: Kim Cattrall and Seth NumrichTristram Kenton

A town called St Cloud, a girl named Heavenly and a faded star who feels she’s living on the Moon: the imagery of Tennessee Williams’s drama is celestial, yet he puts his characters through hell.

Amid the clamour of church bells and self-righteous moral hypocrisy, this torrid play invokes castration, venereal disease and prostitution, with love and sexual passion colliding violently with repressive social strictures. It’s about as juicy and lurid a slice of Southern Gothic as anyone could have an appetite for – and this superlative production by Marianne Elliott savours every pungent mouthful.

There are, according to Chance Wayne, two types of people in the world – “those who have had love, and those you haven’t”. He once had it, in his hometown, with Heavenly – lovely daughter of the repellant local politician Boss Finley. Since then, he’s become a desperate silver-screen wannabe and a play-thing for rich women, sleeping his way up the slippery social ladder rung by degrading rung. Now he’s hooked up with Alexandra Del Lago, an ageing film star in flight from her humiliation at the premiere of her last movie, and travelling under the ludicrous pseudonym Princess Kosmonopolis. She needs Chance's virility to sustain and console her; he thinks he can persuade her – by blackmail, if necessary – to kickstart his acting career and help him win back Heavenly. They are both at far from their best when they awake in a rumpled bed in a lavish hotel room, as Williams’ fervid, slightly uneven play, here reworked from multiple drafts by James Graham, begins its mesmerising descent into the infernal.

Kim Cattrall in Sweet Bird of YouthKim Cattrall (pictured, right) is ideally cast as Alexandra: fearless, funny, imposing and poignant, her performance is sensational. Opening her puffy eyes to a ferocious hangover, she is pitifully confused, peering around Rae Smith’s grand design of pillars and white gauze, unable to summon the dimmest recollection of where she is and who the alluring, semi-naked stranger beside her might be. Raddled and tremulous, her hair a ginger frizz, a wrinkled stocking still rucked around one ankle, she gropes for a pair of bottle-bottom glasses and gasps for a puff from the oxygen mask she travels with – swiftly followed by a gulp of vodka. But she still has great grande-dame style; her putdowns of Chance (Seth Numrich), that “beautiful, stupid young man”, are withering; and her heart, however wizened by booze and disillusionment, is still warm and beating. “I’m not a phoney,” she tells Chance, as he sets off into St Cloud in her Cadillac with his pockets stuffed with her cash, “and I want to be your friend.”

Numrich makes her a fine foil, capturing the character’s vanity and slyness as well as his naivete. But it’s in the later scenes that his portrayal really bites. Chance hoped to come home as a bigshot. Instead, he’s reminded everywhere that he’s not the irresistible golden boy he once was, and that his reputation in the town is shot, thanks to a horrible incident involving his beloved Heavenly – who now longs to take refuge in a convent. He becomes creepingly aware that at 29, he’s already a has-been, and barely even that – and as hope disintegrates, Numrich brings a thrilling danger to his escalating recklessness.

The temperature soars still further as Owen Roe’s devilishly red-faced Boss Finley  – who himself has a long-term mistress – hosts an anti-segregation ball, parading his destroyed daughter Heavenly (a palely angelic Louise Dylan) and feckless son Tom Junior (Charles Aitken) as paragons of white purity. The tension finally explodes, here, in a spectacular electrical storm, conjured by Bruno Poet's lighting.

Handled with the slightest clumsiness or uncertainty, all this could so easily become ludicrous; but Elliott responds to the lush, overblown beauty of Williams’ theatricality and language with ravishing flair. relishing its flamboyance while rooting it in the very real suffering and loneliness of his characters. It’s excessive, yes, but thrillingly so; it’s also riveting, wild and quite, quite gorgeous.

Opening her puffy eyes to a ferocious hangover, Kim Cattrall is pitifully confused, unable to recollect where she is and who the semi-naked stranger beside her might be


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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