Sweet Bird of Youth
Dir: Marianne Elliot
150 min • The Old Vic • Until 31 August, 2013
Photograph © Tristram Kenton (Click images to enlarge)
Marianne Elliott, who directed the original Warhorse, gives this old Tennessee Williams warhorse another workout with a splendid ‘back-to-Tara’ set. First staged in 1959 with Geraldine Page and Paul Newman (who went on to star in the film version), this latest revival brings Kim Cattrell back to the London stage as Hollywood has-been Alexandra Del Lago. After being laughed out of her latest attempt at a comeback, Del Lago flees to a hotel in St Cloud, Florida, with her toy-boy, Chance Wayne, played by rising new star Seth Numrich.
In the long (too long) opening scene in their hotel room, we learn that Chance is an aptly named opportunist gigolo. St Cloud is his hometown and he’s hoping for a reunion with Heavenly, his childhood sweetheart. But Heavenly’s pa, Boss Finley (Owen Roe), who’s running for mayor, sends the hotel manager and some local roughnecks to kick Chance out of town, as he did last time Chance was here. The pace improves when the set opens up into the hotel’s lobby and terrace. A rattling thunderstorm accompanies Boss’s campaign speech in Act Two. The ending had to be ‘diluted’ in the 1959 movie, but it doesn’t seem a great deal stronger here.
Chance’s thwarted love for Heavenly gets more focus than his gigolo relationship with Del Lago (a theme Williams had explored in his 1950 novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, filmed two years after Sweet Bird). The play is an archetypal Williams melodrama with typical Williams characters: a histrionic female passing her use-by date and a young man whose promise is burning out. Boss Finley is a blatant recycling of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‘s Big Daddy; Chance is a non-gay variant on the same play’s Brick (Paul Newman again); Alexandra has more than a touch of Streetcar‘s Blanche Dubois (not to mention Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard was 9 years before Sweet Bird of Youth). The cannibalisation theme from Suddenly Last Summer (Williams’ previous play) becomes castration and venereal infection here – shocking stuff in 1959, if less so today.
But these arthritic plays do offer great vehicles for stars old and new. Kim Cattrell spins a pleasing variation on Samantha Jones from Sex and the City. Like Lady Bracknell, she is offstage long enough for you to begin to miss her and rises to magnificent heights in her final scene. Seth Numrich gives a believable, sympathetic performance as Chance, who sees his hope of finding love and stardom slipping out of reach. Numrich is a young man to watch (especially with his shirt off …). The supporting cast opt for slightly over-egged Southern accents, which always adds texture to a Williams play.
Like Noel Coward’s plays, Tennessee Williams revivals can be good or seriously dire. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years ago had Brendan Fraser as a lacklustre Brick. I saw Suddenly Last Summer with Diana Rigg woefully miscast as Violet Venables. In 2009 Rachel Weisz played Blanche Dubois as a ditzy dipsomaniac. Heresy it may be, but I was never a fan of Vivien Leigh’s Oscar-winning movie performance with an accent that, like her Scarlett O’Hara, see-sawed between Alabama and Belgravia (I loved her as Mrs Stone: does that redeem me?). The best Streetcar I’ve seen was in 1974 when Claire Bloom played Blanche as a woman hanging by her fingertips from a total breakdown. Another great stage revival was The Rose Tattoo in 1991 with Julie Walters utterly convincing as a Brooklyn Italian housewife. I would put the Cattrell/Numrich take on Sweet Bird somewhere in the middle – upside rather than downside.