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.

The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sur-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

Bitter Wheat – Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead, Woo hoo.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Summer and Smoke

Almeida Theatre, 14th March 2018

I don’t always find it easy to get into the “Tennessee Williams zone”. My head takes a little bit of time to adjust to all that dreamy lyricism and I find it easier to stomach if there is something to cling on to, a social structure lurking in the background, the interaction of a few characters such that the usual TW human foibles are spread around a bit, a production that is not overly “directorial”.

The Almeida production of Summer and Smoke didn’t offer too much of what I look for, so I can’t say I was quite as bowled over as some of the proper critics who reckon this production was enough to set S&S, written in 1948, alongside the classic TW’s such as A Streetcar Named Desire which premiered the year before. It is very, very good though and should be seen, if you are sharp enough to snaffle some of the Rush tickets that Almeida offers up for sold-out stuff like this, or if it finds its way into the West End as it might. It is also yet another reminder, if this were needed, for all you casual theatre-goers out there. that it is always worth taking a punt on Almeida productions for fear you end up shelving out twice as much when they transfer, as so many have done under Rupert Goold’s tenure. Romola Garai has already been announced in the lead role of Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will line up another outstanding female actor to take on the challenge in Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionist classic Machinal. Invest in both I say.

In S&S Patsy Ferran has, deservedly, attracted all the plaudits for her performance as the uneasy and multiloquent Alma Winemuller, alongside the equally impressive Matthew Needham as tall, dark, handsome, and troubled, boy-next-door John Buchanan. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by My Mum’s A Twat, Ms Ferran’s last outing, but there is no denying her comic credentials. This though is her first major opportunity to showcase her “serious” acting credentials and she grabs it wth both hands. Mesmerising. Yet, if you ask me, the real star to emerge here is director Rebecca Frecknall.

Ms Frecknall has directed this very play before at the Southwark Playhouse which went down well I gather, and has already rung up a string of awards recognising her precocious talent. She clearly has a deep understanding of the text and the battle between body and soul, which lies at the heart of the play. The way she has marshalled the contributions of designer Tom Scutt, the sparse set and simple costumes backed by a ring of 9 upright pianos, the lighting of Lee Curran, the sound of Carolyn Downing and, especially, composer Angus MacRae, is what turns this into a great production, despite my minor misgivings about the play itself.

Across two acts and thirteen scenes the play explores the ultimately unrequited relationship between the nervous, conventional pastor’s daughter Alma and the maverick John Jr, who comes home to become, like his father, the town’s doctor. It is set in the first decade or so of the C20 in the backwoods of Mississippi. A study of doomed desire, we see Alma shift from sexual repression to, eventually, abandonment, as John simultaneously grows out of his wild, drunken, early years into something approaching conformity, though his hasty marriage to Rosa, daughter of a Mexican immigrant who runs a casino, isn’t going to end well. There are a few other plot twists and turns, one decidedly dramatic if predictable, but the vast majority of the “action” centres on the will they, won’t they couple.

Of course out of this TW fashions something with limitless emotional depth and the apparent linear arc of the story dissolves into something more timeless and circular. Rebecca Frecknall seizes on this and, rightly. doesn’t let go. She has a keen eye for the best of contemporary theatre direction but offers her own, clear voice. Ms Ferran and Almeida regular Mr Needham are sympathetic to this interpretation, and importantly, to each other, and are aided by some heavyweight supporting performances from the likes of Forbes Masson (who plays both fathers – clever eh) and Nancy Crane and another remarkable turn from Anjana Vasan (who was so very good in the Young Vic’s Life of Galileo – Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****), as all the other young women in the story (clever again eh).

There were, I admit, a few moments where the intoxicating combination of TW’s poetry, the warm lighting and the minimalist piano score, felt a little too adagio, but, like I said in the open, this is probably more a reflection of my limited attention span that the artfulness of play and production. If you have ever fallen in love with the wrong, or indeed, the right person, and ultimately bollocksed it up, then you are going to recognise Alma and John, even if their world should seem a long way from ours. And, of course, whatever melodramatic nonsense was playing through the theatre of your mind during your great affair/s, it was going to look anaemic in comparison to the intensity of TW’s vision.

If this is what Patsy Ferran can root out of a character like Alma then heavens knows what we have to look forward to in years to come. Nora, Hedda, Martha, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth or a host of, I am sure, stunning parts to be written by the crop of outstanding female playwrights this country is fortunate to have right now. I really cannot wait to see what Rebecca Frecknall turns her hand and eye to next. Presumably she will have another crack at the Almeida. On this showing that nice Mr Icke has some competition.

Cat On a Hit Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre review ***

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Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Apollo Theatre, 13th September 2017

Hmm. I was expecting so much more of this production. It’s Tennessee Williams. An all star cast. The imprimatur of the Young Vic. And Benedict Andrews, who was responsible for the, by all accounts, revelatory A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, is directing, with the help of a top notch creative team.

To be fair, in large part, it delivered. The motives, pain, frustrations and jealousies of the characters were laid bare. In particular I liked (slightly against my expectation) Sienna Miller’s Maggie whose breezy confidence and famously catty (doh) put-downs belied her internal mortification. Lisa Palfrey (last seen by me in the excellent Junkyard) perfectly captured Big Mama’s desperate optimism, especially in the face of the revelation of Big Daddy’s diagnosis. Rising star Hayley Squires (so emotionally powerful in I, Daniel Blake) embraced Mae’s grasping with vigour shoving her fertility into Maggie’s face. When Brian Gleeson finally got the chance to let rip, as Gooper’s mask slips, we saw what a fine actor he is. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy was moreorless on the money, but I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his key scene with Brick, and his accent left me straining to hear on a few occasions, (and for once I hadn’t been a skinflint so was in prime position). Big Daddy should bully everything in his orbit, inanimate as well as animate.

Which brings me to Jack O’Connell’s Brick. Other than his performance in This is England I don’t really know Mr O’Connell, but I can see the intent behind his casting. Brooding yes, intense yes, self loathing yes, but I am not sure he fully inhabits Brick’s vulnerability. This is not a easy character to play but there are, in the angry exchanges with Maggie and Big Daddy, enough lines to create a more ambiguous character than was offered here. In fact overall I was not as persuaded as I would have liked to be by the interaction between the characters. Tennessee Williams’s poetry gives ample opportunity for the main protagonists to project their inner demons but this has to work as a whole and this dynamic fell a little short for me. All this deception, of self and each other, all this conflict, has to weave together.

This was compounded by the set and design of the production. Taking the action out of the historical specificity of the mid 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation was brave, but a little foolhardy I believe. The brushed metal panelling which surrounded the bright space may have suggested sun, heat and, the blindingly obvious, gold, but opened up the stage, when claustrophobia might serve better to convey the stench of death and decay which haunts this play. Tennessee Williams plays work so well because of the language he gifts to his damaged people but also because he simultaneously shines a light on the society in which they are trapped, here a world of immense wealth built originally on the immense cruelty of slavery. This wasn’t really visible in this production. And sticking Jack O”Connell and eventually Sienna Miller in the buff certainly renders explicit the theme of repressed desire but Mr William’s words are just as effective. Mind you they are both mightily beautiful.

Now I feel like I am carping a bit. I would not put any one off seeing this production in the remaining weeks. It is just that with this company, with this director and this cast taking on this C20 masterpiece, I expected a winner. Still onwards and upwards.

The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre review ****

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The Glass Menagerie

The Duke of York’s Theatre, 2nd March 2017

Sorry this is a bit late in the day but this is soldiering on until the end of April and is definitely worth seeing I think.

So obviously this is a classic American play from a classic American playwright and this production has been around for a little while now. It was Tennessee Williams’s breakthrough play and in my book more satisfying than the later classics (mind you I have only seen Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth so I am guessing I am not best placed to judge). It takes the form of a memory play with the protagonist Tom (TW himself- geddit) looking back to a time before he left the home he shared with his histrionic mother and delicate sister. That’s all you really need to know. TW’s writing is as crystal clear and so beautiful and the characters so perfectly described that it is really easy to sink into this.

The production itself is brilliantly lit with the main room of the apartment which the family shared surrounded by inky blackness revealing how their straightened financial circumstances and Laura’s (the sister) agoraphobia and limp have cut them off somewhat from the outside world. The score is also perfect (the chap responsible, Nico Muhly, is one of the best of the current crop of format hopping accessible modern composers). This combination of light and sound intensifies the “dreamy, half-remembered” nature of the events – memory after all is a construct which is imperfect and changes through time. There you go, a little bit of cod psychology for free.

Moreover John Tiffany’s production (he who is behind that Harry Potter play – never ever talk to me about Potter – and Black Watch, which along with the James Plays, is NT Scotland’s finest hour in my view), serves the text very well and is careful to draw out the broader social context (Tom has some monologues to this effect) in which the family find themselves. Actually if you do see this get round to the America After the Fall exhibition at the Royal Academy as well. This play also fits with the themes of optimism and fear which suffused 1930s America (and arguably 1970s America and America now) that the exhibition explores. That is the thing with TW – by looking inwards into the family/friends he shines a light on the wider world around them. And in a much more delicate way than the bang you over the head approach of Arthur Miller (mind you nothing wrong with Miller in my book). Just a thought.

As for the performances. Well Michael Esper as Tom very neatly takes on the heavy lifting that he needs to contextualise events and cleverly captures his ambivalence towards his dependent family and all his frustrations. Cherry Jones is a natural as mummy Amanda, the proper reviews can tell you all about her, and stays the right side of scenery chewing for me. But Kate O’Flynn as Laura is just outstanding. We like her on the telly – she has a face that perfectly reveals the internal machinations of the character – and though I was a bit too far away I felt every second of the excitement and subsequent crushing that followed the visit of the “gentleman caller”, Jim her high school secret crush, which is the pivotal scene. Just so moving.

Anyway time to stop being a gushing luvvie. This is a super play which is well served by this production. Simples.