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London Theatre Reviews

Anna Tolputt and Michael Malarky/ Ph: Robert Day

A BURIED GEM

By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

An undiscovered work of Tennessee Williams is dug up, dusted off, and shines for the first time.

Usually, when the early efforts of distinguished writers and composers languish in obscurity, there's a good reason for it: What they've written is not very good. It's only on rare occasions that a minor work by a major talent reveals itself to be a forgotten gem whose excavation further enhances and enriches their reputation.
 
Such a discovery is Tennessee Williams' Spring Storm, written in 1937 when he was a 26-year-old student on a playwriting course at then University of Iowa.
 
The negative response the play received by Williams' classmates and resident professor convinced him that it had no merit, and he relegated it to the proverbial bottom drawer where it more or less remained untouched until it was rediscovered in the archives of a Texas university in 1996 together with other early manuscripts, letters, stories and poems.
 
What a discovery it turns out to be. In this fascinating piece of juvenilia can be heard the pre-echoes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, the two plays that would establish Williams as America's greatest poet-dramatist.
 
The play centers on the romantic aspirations of four young people as they eke out an existence in a small town on the Mississippi Delta during the Depression.
 
The burden of the narrative rests on the shapely shoulders of a pretty girl called Heavenly (Liz White), a name Williams would use 22 years later in Sweet Bird of Youth.
 
Much to the disapproval of her financially strapped, class-conscious mother Esmerelda (Jacqueline King), Heavenly is in love with the fiercely independent working-class Dick Miles (Michael Thomson) whose only ambition in life is to work on the levee.
 
Also in love with Heavenly is Arthur Shannon (Michael Malarky) a nerdish, would-be poet who happens to be the son of the richest man in town. 
 
Completing the quartet is Hertha Neilson (Anna Tolputt), a homely but free-spirited librarian who is unrequitedly in love with Arthur.
 
As well as employing a Chekhovian dynamic of unfulfilled hopes and desires, spinsterhood is another theme Williams touches on in the characters of Esmerelda's sympathetic sister Lila (Joanna Bacon) and Hertha's employer Birdie Schlagmann (Janice McKenzie). Heavenly's mother Esmereda, for example, will morph into Amanda Wingfield, Arthur Samson has some of the qualities of her son Tom, while the pain, loneliness and humiliation felt by the unloved Hertha will resurface in varying degrees in her daughter Laura.     
 
Apart from the excitement of discovering a work of real quality from one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century, the Royal & Derngate Northampton production, presented by the National Theatre and directed by Laurie Sansom, could not be improved upon. A particularly novel touch is having some of the characters setting the scenes in each act  by speaking Williams' printed stage directions.
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