Friday, 14 June 2013

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

Tennessee Williams is almost always a hit with me so one of his plays I hadn't seen before, Sweet Bird of Youth, was something to look forward to. The Old Vic's new production is probably guaranteed success anyway as it's coaxed Kim Cattrall back to the London stage to play the drink and drug-addled, faded Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago. When her attempt at a comeback goes badly wrong, she goes into hiding (although her attempt to go incognito does involve her calling herself The Princess Kosmonopolis, so not exactly hiding very well) along the way picking up a young gigolo, Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich.) Chance drives her around the anonymous towns of America, but when Alexandra wakes up in a hotel room in St Cloud she doesn't realise Chance hasn't brought them there by, well, chance: This is his home town, and he's got a plan to get back his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Louise Dylan) and find stardom for both of them.

As the title suggests, Sweet Bird of Youth is about youth and particularly its fleeting nature. Interestingly, it's not the older of the leads who is most concerned by this; Chance is in his late twenties, starting to lose his hair and beginning to realise how much he's relied on his looks to get by. More than that, his dreams of Hollywood stardom had better come true soon while he's still got the assets he's banking on. Meanwhile Heavenly, too, for reasons that are revealed later on, sees herself as a much older woman than she actually is.


At 3 hours, Marianne Elliott's production is maybe a bit too long, but it's powerful all the same. Though Cattrall is, on paper, playing an older beauty with an eye for younger men, in practice this doesn't feel like typecasting: Having medicated herself against the pain of failure with every legal or illegal substance she can get her hands on, Alexandra spends half the opening scene unaware of where she is, and who with, so Cattrall gets to essentially build the character up from nothing, and she goes through a major transformation over the course of the play. Chance on the other hand, starting out apparently cocky and in control, is on the opposite trajectory. A discovery of Elliott's from her Broadway production of War Horse, this is as much Numrich's show as it is Cattrall's, and the second half of the play largely belongs to his self-destruction. Numrich also spends most of the first two scenes with his shirt off, which is only fair given the publicity has largely been selling the show on his nipples.


The whole first hour is spent almost exclusively with these two in their hotel room, and powerful as that is it's a relief to expand and see more of the town, especially Heavenly's family, led by her bible-thumping, corrupt politician father Boss Finley (Owen Roe.) Gradual revelations about them shed a new light on who Chance really is and why they hate him so much - and why he might be in danger if he stays in town much longer. We also get to see the first of the simple but effective changes made by Rae Smith's grand set.

The familiar Williams theme of terrifying medical procedures is present, although here has a particularly sexual angle, with whispers of a shameful operation that Heavenly had after the last time she saw Chance, and Chance himself constantly being threatened with castration by Heavenly's brother Tom Jr (Charles Aitken.)


Elliott doesn't shy away from the melodrama of Williams' play but her production seems to get away with it - a powerful scene of violence in the penultimate act is played to the hilt and rumbles along under thunder, lightning, and Dan Jones' dramatic music. Sweet Bird of Youth makes for a rather well-balanced star vehicle, the first half showcasing an established name, the second half introducing a new one. People will go for the popular leading lady, but they won't be disappointed on any other score either. (I took my sister, a big Sex and the City fan, to this as her belated birthday treat; she was thrilled with Cattrall but also impressed by Numrich's chest and the play itself. Although I didn't quite expect what she later told me her reaction was when she first spotted the actress on stage: "I can't believe that's actually Kim Cattrall! She was in Mannequin!")

Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 31st of August at the Old Vic.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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