Review – Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2nd June 2019

Orpheus DescendingIf Tennessee Williams knew one thing, it was how to write for, and about, women. His plays always (as far as I can make out) feature a few vulnerable, essentially noble, world-weary, mentally tortured women affected by one lone humdinger of a rough-and-ready sexual male. Think the triangle of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chance and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth. There will be others, I’m sure.

Hattie MorahanOrpheus Descending, which was first produced in 1957, after Cat and before Bird, also follows this structure. Lady runs a dry-goods store whilst her ailing husband complains upstairs, when into her life drifts the itinerant musician and ne’er-do-well Valentine Xavier (you couldn’t create a more exotic stage name if you tried). Val has already had knowledge of local harlot Carol, and is also caught playing up to Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife – never a wise move. Nevertheless, (or, maybe, as a result,) Lady invites Xavier to move into a storeroom downstairs in the shop, ostensibly as a clerk and to save on hotel bills, but, in reality, to be engaged on additional duties.

Seth Numrich and castBriefly Lady enjoys a new lease of life. But guys like Valentine never stay in one place too long, and, encouraged to leave town by the sheriff, he makes plans to save his bacon. However, someone else takes matters into their own hands in a surprisingly catastrophic ending, that represents an irrepressible surge of the emotions that have been bubbling under the surface. Whilst it might not be clean and classic, it’s certainly effective; and if you don’t know what happens, I’m not going to spoil it for you!

Seth Numrich and Ian PorterAs the title suggests, the play is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, although I don’t know enough of the Classical story to identify quite where the crossovers lie. I know that Orpheus visited the underworld, so I guess that’s the descent that’s alluded to in the title. Trouble is, if Val represents Orpheus, he never quite gets around to leading Eurydice (Lady, I presume) out of the underworld. Or maybe that’s the point? I’m not going to dwell on it, I’ll leave that to others more intelligent than me.

CastDesigner Jonathan Fensom has very sensibly created a Spartan set, with only a few tables and chairs, a magnificent old till (either beautifully recreated by a workshop somewhere or well sourced by the props department), with the back of the stage enclosed by a decrepit wooden-slatted back screen. This design approach, which allows our imaginations to run riot, is perfect for this kind of play; one that has a large cast of characters and could otherwise get bogged down in trying to present a realistic setting.

Hattie Morahan, Seth Numrich, Jemima RooperHattie Morahan gives a great performance as Lady; she’s that rare combination of strong and fragile, assertive and vulnerable. Although Lady may be in charge of her business, she’s not really in charge of her life, and Ms Morahan’s portrayal deftly reveals that conflict. She is matched by a very good performance by Seth Numrich as Valentine; a tad clean-cut to be loafing on the road perhaps, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Because he comes across as an essentially decent type, when his transgressions are variously revealed it makes them all the more shocking.

Ian Porter and Carol RoyleJemima Rooper is brilliant as the louche and couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-it Carol, face painted with artless excess, someone who’s used whatever it took in order to survive. Carol Royle is also excellent as the slightly deranged Vee, desperate to peek out from under the thumb of her controlling husband, and a lone figure of creativity in an otherwise repressed environment. And there’s a great partnering of Catrin Aaron as Beulah and Laura Jane Matthewson as Dolly, the gossipy locals who love to sniff out any scandal.

Valentine Hanson and Jemima RooperIn a nicely Brechtian touch, the role of Uncle Pleasant, played by Valentine Hanson, is enhanced so that he recites Williams’ stage directions as an introduction and towards the climax of the piece. Mr Hanson hangs around portentously, on and off during the performance, creating an ominous reminder that there is a world outside. Williams often has a minor, but authoritarian male figure who calls the shots – or at least tries to; here given a strong performance by Ian Porter as Sheriff Talbott. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing this slice of southern melodrama to life.

Jemima Rooper and CastThis is definitely one of Tennessee Williams’ Championship-level plays rather than one of his Premiership big-hitters, but nevertheless this excellent production gives us a good chance to see one of his works that isn’t performed that frequently. Powerful and riveting performances win the day! It’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Sweet Bird of Youth, Festival Theatre Chichester, 24th June 2017

Sweet Bird of YouthWhen they write the history of 20th century American drama (they probably already have, actually) three names will stand out as being the greatest writers amongst them: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. When I was first discovering theatre In A Big Way in my teens, I acquired the scripts to so many of their plays and totally devoured them. Of course, a play is a very different entity when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it; and I’m not sure how much of the 16-year-old me would have really appreciated the niceties of Sweet Bird of Youth, just reading it propped up behind the bikesheds at school. My Penguin edition also contains A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, both of which I saw in my teens and confirmed me as a massive Tennessee Williams fan. It’s taken another forty years for me finally to see a production of Sweet Bird of Youth and I confess to you, gentle reader, I have committed the sin of overlooking this incredible play all my adult life.

SBOY1Lousy gigolo and wannabe actor Chance Wayne is found in bed with formerly great actress Alexandra Del Lago, now hiding behind the soubriquet of Princess Kosmonopolis, in a posh hotel room littered with empty champagne bottles. Wayne’s back in his home town of St Cloud, much to the horror of the local Finlay family and their acolytes, who govern the town with a corrupt iron fist. Wayne’s former girlfriend, Heavenly, is the daughter of Boss Finlay and he’s not happy. In fact, he wants Wayne “gone by tomorrow – tomorrow begins at midnight”. Last time Wayne was with Heavenly, she got “infected”, and the infection had to be cut out, so that now she’s barren. If he stays, the local heavies are going to apply the same treatment to him (nasty). Wayne has this self-delusional idea that Miss Del Lago could get him into the movies (she could probably barely get him into the two-and-sixpenny’s) and that his new-found success will win Heavenly back. But none of this is going to happen. The women are washed-up, the men are corrupt, and hapless Wayne is caught in the middle. The only person in St Cloud on Wayne’s side is kindly Aunt Nonnie, who begs him to leave for his own safety; but Wayne is too much in love with himself to listen. How’s it all going to end? I was going to say, you’ll have to go see it for yourself, but you can’t because we saw the final performance! So you’ll just have to find another production!

SBOY4It’s interesting that it is among the later of his great plays – Glass Menagerie first saw light of day in 1944, Streetcar in 1947, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; Sweet Bird of Youth first appeared in 1959. Whereas those older plays were the product of Williams’ fervent youthful imagination – and considerable life experience – of his early to mid-thirties, by the time Sweet Bird hit the stage he was 48, and entering that time of life when it’s traditional to start your midlife crisis. The play is packed full of reminiscence, regret, and harking back to a time of youth. Alexandra Del Lago has lost her youthful attractiveness and box-office power; at 29, the wretched Wayne has only a few years left in him of his wayward lifestyle which showed such promise in his youth; his ex-girlfriend Heavenly is only a shadow of her former self (she was just 15 when Chance “had” her). In addition, local political scumbag Boss Finlay is holding a “Youth for Tom Finlay” rally upstairs at the Royal Palms Hotel, which emphasises the importance of youth and associates it with success; but what we actually see is the youth followers of Finlay beating up an (older) heckler, showing us the violent and destructive side of youth. Finlay has a policy of “southern segregation”, so these beautiful young things are actually supporting a thoroughly ugly concept. Youth may be a sweet bird at first, but it turns into a tough old bird if it doesn’t realise its promise.

SBOY7This is the kind of big play and production that always feels absolutely right on the Festival Theatre stage. Anthony Ward’s brilliant set surprises you, scene by scene, as he creates a decadent hotel suite, the Finlays’ grand mansion, and the bar at the Royal Palms hotel with flowing ease. You get glimpses of the backstage area at the Royal Palms, where the rally is taking place, giving the illusion that the room goes on for miles. That bar scene is particularly effective, with all its bar-room trappings: the lethargic pianist; the vacuous young things laughing whole-heartedly at nothing at all; the well-paid discarded mistress dolled up to the nines; the very well-stocked bar tended by an arrogant young barman. It’s a superbly convincing staging.

SBOY3The marketing for this show was very heavily based on the star performers playing the roles of the Princess and Wayne: Marcia Gay Harden, who’s done loads of films, TV and Broadway work; and Brian J Smith, who’s also done loads of Broadway, films, and Netflix’s Sense8. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you, gentle reader? Yep. Hadn’t heard a jot about either of them. Sometimes I feel we live on a different planet. However – hopefully this marketing did attract the audiences, because I have to say Miss Harden and Mr Smith both turn in incredible performances.

SBOY2Much of the text concentrates on conversations between just the two of them – all of the lengthy first scene, and of course the final scene – and they are mesmeric. In that first scene, they instantly capture the atmosphere of both decadence and failure; Mr Smith in his offensively expensive satin pyjamas, always hovering around the bed but never comfortable in it; Miss Hayden, the opposite; emerging under the sheets in her black nightie that just manages to cover her enough to be decent, making sarcastic demands from the boy so that she doesn’t have to lift a finger. It really conveys the power imbalance within the relationship. Through the course of two and three quarter hours, Miss Hayden lets loose a full range of emotions from wheedling insecurity to provoked anger, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. Mr Smith, too, is fantastic at revealing his character’s catastrophic emptiness, always playing No 2 to those around him, relying on drunken happy-go-luckiness to survive his experience at the Royal Palms bar, understanding in the final scene that he has no more aces to play. It’s a brilliant performance.

SBOY5The large ensemble company, many of whom have very brief but nevertheless effective roles, are all excellent. Dominating the stage in his own scenes is a superb performance by Richard Cordery as the horrendous Boss Finlay, chomping on and spitting out his cigar with all the finesse of a warthog, shaming his family members because they’re too weak to stand up to him, deluding himself about the existence of Miss Lucy; basically encapsulating everything you’d hate about a Southern Political Baron. And there’s definitely something of the Trump in there. I also really loved Ingrid Craigie as the much put-upon Aunt Nonnie; her scene where she approaches Wayne to encourage him to leave is heartfelt and gently funny – I loved how she goes there full of resolve but then just melts with his charm – totally believable. Emma Amos is a delightful Miss Lucy, fluttering around the bar like a true Tennessee Williams southern belle, relying on the kindness of strangers even though she isn’t in A Streetcar Named Desire.

SBOY6I thought this was a stunning night’s theatre, performed with heart, a sense of injustice and a truthfulness that reveals the horror of life for a number of rather dissolute people. As I mentioned earlier, that was the final performance so I hope you got to see it. For me, Sweet Bird has now definitely taken its place among the great plays of the 20th century. There’s so much to get out of it; so much that’s only hinted at; so much to fear in it, so much to empathise with. Absolutely first class!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2014

Cat on a Hot Tin RoofIt was only as Mrs Chrisparkle and I were settling down in our stalls seats last Wednesday evening that I realised I’ve never actually seen a stage performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’d read it when I were a lad (I read almost Tennessee Williams plays when I was 16) and I saw the famous Laurence Olivier version on TV about the same time. It’s taken me several decades to rectify this omission. This play first arrived on Broadway in 1955, but it’s absolutely as relevant today as it was then, with its examination of a family on its knees in a desperate web of deceit.

BrickBrick and Maggie are trapped in a loveless marriage at his parents’ plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Maggie feels the pressure from her overbearing mother-in-law, who’s desperate for yet another grandchild, and her irredeemably fecund sister-in-law who already has five “no-neck” children with another on the way. No wonder Maggie’s as jittery as a cat on a hot tin roof. She tries to work all her charm and womanly wiles to woo Brick into bed but he’s adamant that he has no intention of resurrecting their love life – so this baby is never going to appear under these circumstances. Maggie in despairMaybe he’s gay, maybe he’s depressed; maybe he’s too much into his liquor to give a fig for anything else. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s been undergoing medical treatment and the entire family are aware that he’s actually dying of cancer – apart from Big Mama and Big Daddy himself. How are the fortunes of Brick and Maggie’s marriage and Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage going to change during the course of this summer’s evening? This is definitely Tennessee Williams’ version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Relationships within the household will never be the same again by bedtime.

MaeIn a house where no doors are ever locked, there sure are a lot of secrets. What is it that has driven Brick to down almost three bottles of Bourbon during the course of the play? “Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’”? he asks his father, resulting in Big Daddy wanting to know who it is who might have lied to Brick. Brick confirms it’s “no one single person and no one lie”. And isn’t that the truth! Lies about the pretend happiness between Maggie and Brick. Invasion of privacyLies about the solidity of Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage: “I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound or smell of that woman for forty years now – even when I laid her!” Lies about the prognosis of Big Daddy’s medical condition. Lies about Big Daddy’s love for his grandkids (he doesn’t). The whole place is riddled with mendacity. Lying is the default setting for the entire household – as his father tells him “I’ve lived with mendacity, why can’t you live with it?” Brick drinks because he can see no way out of this; but Maggie, however, finds a way forward at the end of the play – even though it’s yet another lie.

Charles AitkenThis excellent production by the Royal and Derngate together with Northern Stage and the Royal Exchange sheds light on the darkness of this intense and disturbing play. Mike Britton’s stark design of white slatted walls suggests a cage from which the characters can’t escape – a world of black and white that allows neither the shades of grey of compromise nor the colours of real living; everything’s just harsh and clinical. Light bounces off the gleaming white furniture and walls in an illusion of happiness where in fact sadness reigns. The louvred walls suggest a lack of privacy as the light and sound of the fireworks invade the bedroom, whilst also providing a very neat representation of Brick and Maggie’s ensuite. R&D Big Daddy and BrickArtistic Director James Dacre and assistant director Dan Hutton take that setting and contrast it with the broken inhabitants of the household, creating some very striking images. Maggie flirtatiously prowling round Brick; Brick scrambling across the floor to keep hold of his crutch; the teeth-janglingly sweet “Skinamarinka” birthday greeting of the children that no one appreciates; the pathetic sight of Brick upended at the foot of the bed with burst pillow feathers falling everywhere like Paul Simon’s “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”. Visually this is a very impressive and memorable production.

Kim CriswellThere are some top quality performances too. We both felt Mariah Gale as Maggie was stunningly good in that opening scene that calls for so much expression and so many varieties of mood. It’s a cliché but she really does have to run the gamut from A to Z. We’d seen her in Proof but this role is much more suited to her. Wily, desperate, rejected, dismissive, snide, bitchy, yet always hopeful; Maggie has to be all of these and Miss Gale did it to perfection. Charles Aitken’s Brick was superbly dulled and damaged by the detritus of his friendship with Skipper, playing up with relish to the prospect of yet another Bourbon, allowing his spark to be snuffed out with the challenge of daily survival, but still snappy and aggressive in the face of too close an attack – very convincing. Victoria ElliottKim Criswell is splendid as Big Mama – formidably menacing when she’s in charge, hopelessly lost when the ground beneath her gives way. Due to the indisposition of Daragh O’Malley, the role of Big Daddy was taken by Terence Wilton, text in hand. I think he’s been playing the role for quite a while now and is giving a rich and powerful performance, only occasionally needing to refer to the script. Such is the magic of theatre that this didn’t in any way spoil the whole effect. The rest of the cast give very good support, especially Victoria Elliott as a nicely waspish Mae and Matthew Douglas as a mildly Neanderthal Gooper. We saw Children Team A on the night we went and Matthew Douglasthey were delightfully ghastly – good job done!

This is a very vivid production of Williams’ horrendously bleak drama that holds your attention throughout. After it finishes its run in Northampton it goes on to the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 29th November. Thought-provoking and hard-hitting – a very rewarding night at the theatre, and thoroughly recommended.