Saturday 17 June 2017

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth

I had a feeling that Daniel Evans taking over as Artistic Director of Chichester's theatres would make me break my previous rule of not making the trip to West Sussex; and with Ian McKellen revisiting King Lear there later this year it proved a bit too tempting. So in for a penny, in for a pound, I ended up booking three shows in the two theatres, and why not when there's the chance to see Brian J. Smith in another Tennesse Williams play only months after his memorable performance in The Glass Menagerie? This time he's Chance Wayne, the wannabe actor, more realistically a hustler, in Sweet Bird of Youth. A couple of weeks before we first meet him, Chance hooked up with a woman calling herself the Princess Kosmonopolis, who 's paying for a luxury lifestyle in return for his discreet companionship.

In fact it's not much of a secret that she's really faded Hollywood star Alexandra del Lago (Marcia Gay Harden,) running away from a disastrous attempt at a movie comeback.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a play whose world gradually expands outwards from the hotel room they share, the first two scenes almost two-handers except for brief appearances by bellhops and a warning from Dr Scudder (Matthew Barker) that Chance shouldn't stick around too long. Because this is actually the town he grew up in, and he has a lot of enemies thanks to his on-off romance with Heavenly, daughter of local political bigwig Boss Finley (Richard Cordery, who's got the amiable front with a threatening underside down pat.) Chance doesn't realise quite what condition he left Heavenly in the last time he visited, that has left him threatened with castration if he ever returned.

We get a glimpse of the way the town operates when the play moves out to include Finley's household, Graham Butler comic as his son Tom Jr but later showing the way being pushed around at home makes him vicious outside it, and when we finally meet Heavenly, Victoria Bewick gives her a well-defined mix of strength with the hint of some psychological damage done by recent events.

As the title suggests, youth and its loss are at the heart of the play, with both its leads having built their lives around their good looks, but it's the barely-30-year-old Chance who feels it more keenly than Alexandra. She calls herself a monster, who for all her diva behaviour has a ruthless survival instinct, and this is what Harden's performance really focuses on. The real tragedy here is Chance's, Smith really showing how under all the bluster he's given up. When we meet some of the people he grew up with (Rob Ostlere, Sam Phillips and a spectacularly quiffed Alex Bhat,) it's clear his personal mythology as a great lover and born star hasn't spread to his home town, who view him as a drunken joke. As Finley's mistress Miss Lucy, Emma Amos offers a rare voice of genuine concern, even if it does come with a glee for gossip.

Jonathan Kent's production really seemed to me to speed by, while at the same time taking the time to touch clearly on all the themes Williams looks at in the play, from the overwhelming one of lost youth, to the unsubtle (what with the play's major threat being of literal castration) one of losing his looks being emasculating for Chance, and the more subtly recurring theme of racism in politics. Anthony Ward's set is in some ways simple and effective, with huge shutters the main way of changing the scene, although I wasn't sold on the billowing sheet above the stage - I liked the idea of it being used for projections to set the mood, but in practice it looks distractingly like an enormous prawn cracker. But really the production's focus and its strength are the performances, with Smith again proving himself great at finding the subtleties in Williams' characters - with Sense8's untimely cancellation, can we at least keep him here to do more of this as a consolation?

Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennesse Williams is booking until the 24th of June at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir, Johan Persson.


  1. I too enjoyed it very much, but what a pity there were so many empty seats

  2. I think for the size of the venue and the location you probably needed bigger names to fill it with a revival.