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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH
at the Old Vic

RAVAGED PURITY
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Seth Numrich and Kim Cattrall/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Cougars, cracked dreams and castration come together in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth to create an evening of primal rage and suppurating menace. Marianne Elliott’s stylish, witty production allows the audience to revel in the poisoned beauty of Williams’ vision while feeling the devastation of the Dionysiac fury that will eventually rip everything apart.
 
One of the most fascinating aspects of this production is Elliott’s decision to cast Kim Cattrall as the vampish movie star who seduces gigolo Chance Wayne as a consolation prize for her fading career. Since the play was written in 1959, the cultural tendency to sneer at older women’s sexuality has diminished significantly – and Cattrall’s Sam from Sex in the City arguably did a huge amount to kick that attitude in the balls. What’s so brilliant about her performance, then, is the way she shifts the dark comedy so that it’s about her character’s drink, drug and oxygen dependency rather than about how outrageous it is that she’s lured a young man into bed. She comes across as a fabulous illustration of style over discontent, a cougar who can and will do whatever she can to maintain the upper hand.
 
On Rae Smith’s set, a study in decayed grandeur, the lights go up on a morning-after-the-night-before hotel bedroom, filled with lies and regrets. Seth Numrich’s hunky Chance Wayne lights up and checks himself out in the mirror – Narcissus with a cigarette – before prowling the room as his famous lover lies face down in bed, coughing. The arrival of an unexpected visitor, Daniel Betts’ appropriately clinical Dr Scudder, reveals two things: that Wayne’s mother has died without his knowing; and the love of Wayne’s life, Heavenly, is now engaged to Scudder. Yet Scudder is here not simply as the messenger, but as the prosecutor. Quickly we get the sense that Wayne’s hometown, St Cloud, will prove no sanctuary, but the place where the Furies will excoriate him for past misdemeanours.
 
Sweet Bird is a strange, oddly structured work, as symptomatic of a warped age as of a warped imagination. The obsession of all the men with Heavenly’s violated purity, her politician father’s castrating rage, the absurdity of Wayne’s strategy for winning her back – none of this should ring true with a modern liberal audience. Yet there are no false notes in Elliott’s production. The potent performances allow us to read the play as a work about the eternal themes of power games and delusion. Owen Roe’s towering turn as Heavenly’s choleric father, Boss Finley, contrasts beautifully with Louise Dylan’s brittle vulnerability as his unfortunate daughter. And as his son, Charles Aitken allows us to feel the conflicted menace of a young man whose protectiveness flares into bigoted violence.
 
Dan Jones’ sound design – all thunderous rumbles and well-timed crescendos – contributes to the sense of a society on the brink of a nervous breakdown. This sweet bird may be doomed, but while it flies, it is a glorious thing to observe.

 


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