I very much admire the playwright Tennessee Williams, who gives his audience a witty and ironic insight into the tormented lives of his characters, who are all too often victims and outsiders. He was an extremely sensitive young man who was continually ridiculed by his tyrannical and womanizing father. With his mother a rector’s prudish daughter, it is easy to see that Williams’ parents weren’t exactly a love match and is probably the reason why his plays centre around profound sexual conflicts. He was unable to examine his own sexual orientation within his plays, written as they were when homosexuality was a no go area in American theatre, so produced nominally heterosexual dramas changing tormented autobiography into artistic metaphor.
The sexual content in Sweet Bird of Youth is there right from the beginning, although in Marianne Elliott’s version currently playing at The Old Vic, there isn’t quite enough wit. The first scenes do tend to somewhat drag.
The story centres around Chance Wayne, who returns to his hometown of St Cloud in America’s Deep South, as gigolo to faded film star, with the odd moniker of The Princess Kosmonopolis. They are holed up in the bedroom of the Royal Palms Hotel, badly hung over and fleeing from who knows what. It transpires that The Princess is a past her sell-by date, very much middle-aged movie star, whilst Wayne is a twenty-nine year old drifter, who is desperate to recapture his younger, more innocent self as well as his one enduring love, Heavenly Finlay. Unfortunately for Wayne, Heavenly’s father is the local venomous facist, Boss Finlay, who, along with his son, Tom Junior, promises to do unimaginable things to the boy who, in their eyes, has done irreparable damage to the young girl. Wayne should not have returned home.
Kim Cattrall, whilst not spellbinding, makes a credible raddled floozie, hooked on popping pills, hard liquor and the odd need for sucking on an oxygen bottle. We saw an early preview, so I’m sure this opening scene improved by Press Night. I hope so, because I wasn’t always convinced about the connection between her and Seth Numrich’s Chance Wayne. Her vulnerability at having lost her sweet bird of youth, however, does shine through, although I would personally have ditched the hideous ginger wig.
The American Seth Numrich is excellent throughout. His physique and looks are one thing but they are propped up by a superb performance. He manages to be totally believable both as a delusional and manic self obsessed young man, intent on proving that he’s made or will make something of his miserable life and as a vulnerable boy, touchingly in love with the girl of his younger, more innocent youth.
The other stand out performance is Owen Roe as Boss Finlay. With his purple face, crumpled linen suit and piggy eyes, he is absolutely terrifying and I totally believe that poor old Chance doesn’t stand a chance against such a villainous racist. Praise must also be given to Brid Brennan playing an understated Aunt Nonnie.
As is often the case with a British cast tackling an American play, the accents sometimes slip. In this production it isn’t the slip as much as the over egging. At times, Lucy Robinson’s Miss Lucy, The Boss’s mistress, sounds like a rather bad audition for advertising Kentucky Fried Chicken. Again, hopefully this will improve. I’m also not sure about Michael Begley’s The Heckler. The whole thing is just too weird.
Rae Smith’s design is excellent, although I do have a slight niggle. The opening scene shows a peeling back wall, partially hidden by a white curtain, thus giving the impression that the two leads are sharing a bedroom in some run-down motel, rather than the smarter sounding Royal Palms Hotel. When the action switches to Boss Finlay’s house and the wall in question turns into an outside one, the reason it’s not pristine becomes clear. It’s a shame the aforementioned white curtain doesn’t do a better camouflaging job.
This Sweet Bird of Youth isn’t the definitive Tennessee William’s revival but it is very enjoyable all the same.