Tuesday 24 July 2012

Theatre review: Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams' later work is ripe for rediscovery: Like Terence Rattigan, he fell out of favour with critics and public alike, but unlike Rattigan he doesn't seem to have let this get to him, and continued to have a prolific output. Having been rehabilitated as one of the greatest 20th century playwrights after his death, his early hit plays are now frequently revived, but perhaps due to lack of familiarity these little-loved, at the time, later works remain obscure but worthy of reevaluation. Dating from 1977, Vieux Carré, which is revived by Robert Chevara at the King's Head, has much in common with those early hit melodramas. But where The Glass Menagerie sees a Williams-substitute character in a family context, here the playwright's alter-ego, a nameless young Writer (Tom Ross-Williams) has fled the nest to New Orleans, to a crumbling boarding house in the titular district.

Through the too-thin partitions the Writer eavesdrops on, and occasionally becomes an unwilling participant in, the other residents' dramas. Landlady Mrs Wire's (Nancy Crane) eccentricities, like sleeping under the piano in the hall to catch out guests moving around the house at night, have a tendency to edge over into outright insanity. The consumptive old artist Nightingale (David Whitworth) is in denial about his illness being anything other than asthma, and has a tendency to try and buy sexual favours from any young man he meets. And Jane (Samantha Coughlan,) living unmarried with the handsome but untrustworthy Tye (Paul Standell) has received a distressing letter from a clinic. I think the humour in Williams' plays is often underestimated but in the first act of Vieux Carré it's particularly apparent, with a lot of funny, biting lines and even borderline farcical sexual comedy (I liked the line about the Writer's first sexual encounter, with a paratrooper who "descended on him.") But there's cruelty and darkness in there too - Mrs Wire takes a great deal of pleasure in tormenting a pair of dotty, literally starving old ladies (Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil) while her black servant Nursie's (Eva Fontaine) retirement plan is to become a bag lady.

The second act inevitably takes on a darker tone overall, and as well as the mental illness that crops up so often in Williams' plays he loads Vieux Carré with a lot of physical illness imagery as well: Nightingale's bloodstained pillows from his constant coughing fits, Jane's life-threatening blood disease (probably leukemia?) and the writer himself is going blind in one eye. Although there's a couple of dodgy accents in the mix (I'm going to assume Jack McMillan's playing a Swedish musician because any other possibilities don't bear thinking about) the performances are generally good, especially from Crane as the erratic landlady, Whitworth as the queeny neighbour with a nice line in bitchy put-downs and Fontaine making a lot out of a small part. The play does leave a few threads hanging (where do the old ladies vanish to after the interval?) and lacks a bit of coherence but for a supposedly lesser work Vieux Carré is very impressive, a sexually charged story which in this production comes complete with aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERTfrom the studly Standell, who very much has everything where it should be. Well, almost everything, I'm not sure how historically accurate that degree of manscaping is to 1930s Louisiana. Although I guess he'd want to try anything that'd cool his parts down, since the theatre isn't air conditioned so was tonight doing a bit too good an impression of a sweltering New Orleans summer - a shame, as it meant I was keen for the show to end for reasons that had nothing to do with its quality. Recommended, although maybe wait and see if the weather does cool down a bit as predicted at the end of the week.

Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 4th of August at the King's Head Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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