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The Theatreguide.London Review

Small Craft Warnings
Arcola Theatre      Autumn 2008

Tennessee Williams' 1972 play belongs to that small but significant subgenre of American drama set in barrooms. Like O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (among others), this is a loving salute to that environment and the solace it offers its denizens.

And for Williams, the American theatre's greatest poet of the lonely, this particular bar on the California coast is to be celebrated as a home and family for the homeless and alone.

Literally, as it turns out. In the course of the play two characters will be thrown out of their temporary homes, two will move away, two will just be passing through. Three temporary romances-of-convenience will end and one will begin.

This is a play about small people with small dreams and small desires, willing to settle for the small gifts life gives them and wise enough not to reject them in hope of more. It is a play marked by mourning and losses and deaths, and yet it is a play full of joy, and a great deal of warm comedy.

With great sensitivity and delicacy, veteran director Bill Bryden guides his talented cast down the narrow path between grotesquerie on one side and oversentimentality on the other, with nary a false step.

Bryden has assembled a remarkably strong cast, even for this particularly ambitious fringe theatre, and every one of them serves and sustains the play's fragile atmosphere.

The engine driving things is the performance of Sian Thomas as a beautician a bit past her prime who lives in a caravan so she can up stakes every few months to find a new town, a new job, a new bar to hang out in and a new stud to take to her narrow bed.

She's the one who lures, cajoles or drives the others to open up and take the risk of being emotionally honest, and it is she who offers comfort, even to strangers and even to her foes.

Thomas displays all the character's wild energy without losing our sympathy, showing us the life-affirming force within her and also the toll it takes.

Quieter but no less impressive is Jack Shepherd as the bar owner whose phlegmatic calm allows glimpses of the loneliness beneath. His character may have the fewest lines in the whole play, but you find yourself watching him as he watches the others, so fully does Shepherd inhabit the man.

There are also strong performances by Greg Hicks as a stranger passing through, who pauses only long enough to mourn the loss of his ability to feel anything, and by Meredith MacNeill as a brain-addled floozy for whom even impersonal sex is a source of comfort.

Almost as soon as the play begins you find yourself drawn into these people's little lives and caring about them, and by the end, when the bar shuts and everybody goes home, and two characters who have nothing in common and don't even particularly like each other drift off to bed together, you will feel happy that they are not, like too many of the others, alone.

And that is what Tennessee Williams is all about.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Small Craft Warnings - Arcola  Theatre 2008


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