The Night of the Iguana at the Noel Coward Theatre review ***

The Night of the Iguana

Noel Coward Theatre, 16th September 2019

Last minute purchase. Just about worthwhile. The Night of the Iguana is not normally considered one of Tennessee William’s greatest hits, and I am certainly no TW completist, but the cast, the director, James Macdonald, the designer, Rae Smith, the pretty good, if mixed, reviews and, yes, the price drew me in.

The inspiration for the play came when TW met another young writer, just returned from Tahiti, in Mexico in September 1940, who was also afflicted with the same “troubled heart” that plagued him. Recognition of his talent, and money, was scarce, and TW was close to giving up, but this kindred soul, the environment, and a bunch of perky Germans, sympathetic to the Nazi cause, who appear in the play, spurred him on. A few rum cocktails, long suicidal and literary chats, and a perilous road trip with another guest, seemed to revive our Tennessee and TNOTI was the result. He turned the original 1948 short story into a one act play in 1959 and then into the three acts in 1961.

It concerns the lugubrious Reverend T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) a washed up tourist guide and ex-priest, booted out of his church after an inappropriate relationship with a Sunday school teacher alongside borderline blasphemy. He visits the Mexican resort run by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), the widow of his best friend Fred. She is assisted by a couple of workshy local lads (Daniel Chaves and Manuel Pacific). Alongside the aforementioned incongruous Germans, (Alasdair Baker, Timothy Blore, Karin Carlson and Penelope Woodman), we also meet the grumbling Judith Fellowes (Finty Williams), who leads the tour group which Shannon serially disappoints, and Charlotte Goodall (Emma Channing), a 16 year old member of the group who he may have seduced. More importantly the ageing poet Jonathan Coffin “Nonno” (Julian Glover) then arrives with his niece carer, spinster Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams). Wheelchair bound Nonno is on his last legs and the couple rely on charity and artistic hustles to get by.

They are an odd bunch who frankly exhibit some pretty dodgy behaviours. Rev Shannon is supposed to be some kind of melancholic, tortured soul, who has lost his faith and suffered a breakdown, but is still irresistible to women. Maxine, (you will know Anna Gunn from her turn as Skyler in Breaking Bad), is pretty direct in her sexual desire, as is, more disturbingly, Charlotte, who says next to nothing, and Hannah is soon apparently under his spell. Yet, with his drinking and self pity, stumbling around the stage in crumpled linen suit, Clive Owen doesn’t highlight any particular hidden depths. Judith may well come across as typecast harridan but she probably has the measure of the man.

Now this being Tennessee Williams, there is poetry in the dialogue between these rather curious characters, even as the plot goes nowhere, and this, alongside Rae Smith’s set, the hotel verandah backed by a massive cliff and verdant planting, Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound and, especially, Neil Austin’s lighting, from bright day to dark night via electric storm, is enough to hold one’s attention. And then there is Lia Williams. She normally finds a way to steal the show, even in supporting roles on screen (The Capture, Kiri, The Crown and The Missing) or stage (The Prime of Miss Julie, Mary Stuart, Oresteia, Skylight), but here the rest of the cast are, metaphorically, in her shadow. In the 1964 film version no less an actor than Deborah Kerr played the role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, so you can probably imagine there is enough for a skilled actor to work on, but Ms Williams is astonishing. Sharp tongued when required, notably in her spats with Maxine, (who was played by Bette Davies in the original Broadway production so you get the idea), dismissive of Shannon’s indulgence, and drinking, yet utterly bewitching when describing her only brief sexual liaisons to him in the third act confessional scene.

TW wrote a ton more full length and one act plays after TNOTI but as his mental health deteriorated, his drug use increased and relationships failed to match that with soulmate Frank Merlo who died in 1963, nothing came close. I still quite make up my mind where TW sits in the pantheon of great playwrights but, for a few minutes as the two lead characters realised how much happier their lives might have been if they could only have been more like the other, I could, once again, forgive the pun, see the attraction. Like Chekhov a chronicler of lost, and odd, souls.

All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre review ****

All About Eve

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th March 2019

Bloody West End theatres. The Noel Coward Theatre is by no means the worst offender, and we went early and cheap in terms of booking, which was probably the right strategy, but even this VFM perch was uncomfortable, tight, too hot and with a trek to the bogs which near required a satnav. Still at least the sight-lines were up to snuff, for me, if not so much the SO.

With this story, this cast and this creative team this was never going to fail though even as I occasionally yearned for the comfort of the Lyttleton. If you can’t, or won’t, pay up (£175 for a premium ticket!!) to get along in person then this is definitely worth seeing when it is broadcast live to cinemas on 11th April. It is, even with the back-stage insight and obligatory on-stage video, a surprisingly naturalistic take on the classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film from 1950. I can see why some of the proper reviews say it is overly focussed on the theme of ageing to the detriment of the other insights into the sourer side of the human condition, and Gillian Anderson wisely reins in her inner Bette Davies, (there is the mighty BD above), as Margo Channing, but this is still a very smart piece of theatre craft where the 2 hour straight through run time never drags.

Highlights? Monica Dolan as Karen Richards. Now Ms Dolan, even if she turned it down to say 30 watts, just can’t help outshining everyone else on stage. Here she is magnificent. In the scenes at the party, captured on live video, when everyone has abandoned the drunk, maudlin Margo, she continues to build her character whilst others are “rhubarbing” – there is no sound in these scenes bit it matters not a whit to our Monica. Or take the scene in the car where Karen reveals how she has betrayed Margo to give Eve her big break. Not entirely convincing in the hands of Celeste Holm in the film but here you feel Karen’s remorse at what she has done, and see in her eyes the consequences that will flow from it. You will most likely have seen Ms Dolan on the telly but if you ever get the chance to see her self penned one-woman play The B*easts, about the sexualisation of modern culture, do not, repeat do not, turn it down.

Who else? Well Rhashan Stone as Lloyd Richards, Karen’s playwright husband who also falls under Eve’s spell, also turns in a winning performance. As does the twinkly-eyed Sheila Reid as Margo’s droll, and jealous, retainer Birdie and a booming Stanley Townsend does ample justice to the critic, and Eve’s eventual Svengali, Addison DeWitt, the part made famous by Oscar winner George Sanders. (I am surprised that the OED definition of the word acerbic doesn’t contain reference to the said Mr DeWitt). Indeed all the supporting actors turn in sparkling performances, Ian Drysdale as Margo’s producer Max Fabian, Julian Ovenden as her boyfriend Bill Sampson, debutant Jessie Mei Li as the vacuous Claudia Caswell, (the part played in the film by another newcomer who went by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe), and even Tsion Habte who plays Phoebe the apparent ingenue who pitches up in Eve’s dressing room at the end to repeat the story. Ms Habte is, of course, Lily James’s understudy as Eve. What price Ivo van Hove gets tempted to play that particular meta-dramatic card and shove her into the limelight.

The set and lighting design of Jan Versweyveld is predictably memorable. Mid- and side-stage panels move up to reveal the back-stage workings, this is, after all a play based on a film about the theatre, in turn based on a play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, in turn based on her own short story which she based on the real life experience of actress Elizabeth Bergner. The design allows slick set changes to conjure up Margo’s dressing room in the opening scene where super-fan Eve Harrington first sneaks in and tells her sob story, Margo’s glitzy apartment, front of stage at Aged in Wood, the Stork Club, back-stage at the Shubert Theatre where Eve gets her premiere in Footsteps on the Ceiling, Lloyd’s new play, the awards banquet and finally Eve’s own apartment. There is a sickly pink tinge to much of the design which I shall henceforward imagine is the dominant colour in the film, and which nails the forced grandeur of old-school theatre, set in this grand old-school theatre.

The understated period costumes and the score by PJ Harvey, (finally delivering after a few false starts on other plays recently), with on stage pianist Philip Voyzey, and amplified by Tom Gibbons sound design, complete the ensemble. And this being Ivo van Hove each detail has been thought through and there are some divine moments, not least of which is the, admittedly sledgehammer, video “ageing” of Margo on the projected screen. Of course if one or other, or both, of the leads, were to fall short then so would the whole confection, but Gillian Anderson, with her trademark drawl, is as predictably secure as you might imagine as a tragic heroine despite the bantz and the limpid-exterior-masking-steely-interior of Lily James’s sly Eve is the perfect foil.

So great performances, it looks and sounds spot on and no glaring games played with story or text. But, for me, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the film. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck famously reined in some of the more excessive characterisation in Mankiewicz’s original script, but there is still a hefty dose of melodrama and the sound of tongue pushing against cheek in many of the lines. No-one comes out well and everyone looks after number one first. There is artifice in life as well as art. Anne Baxter’s Eve is recognisably cut from the same cloth as Bette Davies’s Margo. If anyone of these characters pitched up as plus ones at your party, and I include Karen in that, you would probably be looking to wind things up early. Yes the film is about the primacy of youth and looks for women on stage and screen but the message never subsumes the entertainment. The touch is light and, for good or bad, the creators plainly loved their characters. Ivo van Hove’s version, with all the technical wizardry, is decidedly more serious. Maybe too serious. Network at the NT, even if it did miss out some of my favourite bits, was thrilling theatre that eclipsed the film it was based on. This, like other film adaptations by this creative team, does not.

If I may quote from Billers’s review in the Guardian – “this feels more like a Ingmar Bergman movie than a Mankiewicz satire”. The old boy sums it up perfectly as always, especially since it is Bergman that Mr van Hove is continually drawn to as he seeks out films he can react for theatre. (I imagine, based on his brilliant writing, a couple of interviews, his appearance on University Challenge and the fact that he has been theatre critic for nearly 50 years on the world’s greatest newspaper, that the genial Michael Billington is as far removed from Addison DeWitt as it is possible to be. If this were not true the Tourist may well suffer a kind of total psychic collapse).

Even with these caveats, which frankly any half-interested theatre goer familiar with director and film, might reasonably have seem coming well in advance, this is an event and needs seeing. Next up in London, unless I am very much mistaken, from the van Hove factory, is his take on the Janacek song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared with added recitals, music and meaning, at the Royal Opera House, and then, hot on its heels, The Damned at the Barbican, based on Visconti’s coruscating 1969 film, in collaboration with Comedie Francaise, which sounds like in is slap bang in the core of van Hove’s curriculum.