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The Theatreguide.London Review

Southern Belles (Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories Of The Deaths Of Queens)
King's Head Theatre     Summer 2019

This programme of two one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams during his most productive period of the mid-1950s sensitively captures and communicates a side of Williams too often overlooked by critical judgements.

Williams once wrote 'We are all of us sentenced to a life of solitary confinements in our own skins,' announcing that his true subject was loneliness and the hunger for connection with others. These two short plays touchingly show the desperation, the anguish of failure and the need to carry on regardless.

In Something Unspoken a well-off Southern woman is moved by her fading social standing to reach out to her long-serving secretary-companion for emotional support and a reassurance that there is something more than an employer-employee relationship between them. But shyness, social constraints and the class gap make open communication impossible.

It is a play built entirely on subtext, with almost every single line from either woman a coded allusion to something unspoken or unspeakable.

The temptation for director Jamie Armitage and actors Annabel Leventon and Fiona Marr to spell it all out must have been great. But it is very much to their credit that they resist.

What the characters cannot say might be romantic and might even be sexual, but to make it only that would be to reduce the play.

By respecting the characters' need to leave things unsaid, Leventon and Marr make the play about the greater and more pervasive loneliness that is Williams's theme. And as a result it is as deeply moving as he could have wished.

If Something Unspoken is about communication failure through inability to express feelings openly, And Tell Sad Stories Of The Deaths Of Queens is about two characters who declare themselves openly but can't hear what the other is saying.

Ageing (that is to say, in his mid-30s) homosexual Candy brings home straight sailor Karl.

Candy spells out as clearly as he can that while he would not be adverse to sex, what he really wants is a live-in friend, protege and sort-of-husband to assuage his loneliness. And Karl makes it clear that he is totally straight and would as happily beat up a queer as take his money.

But such is the neediness of both, Williams shows us, that they are half drawn in to Candy's fantasy.

If the challenge for the actors in Something Unspoken was to sustain ambiguity, here the task facing Luke Mullins (Candy) and George Fletcher (Karl) is to say everything openly but not hear what the other is saying.

Again sensitively directed by Jamie Armitage, both actors create and sustain our sympathy for both by letting us see and believe the hunger for connection that makes them deny the impossibility of connecting.

Incidental elements in some of Tennessee Williams's best-known plays led to an unwarranted reputation for writing about the violent and grotesque, when his real subject was always the quieter and more universal loneliness of life.

This beautifully understated staging of two short but emotionally complex plays captures the essence of Williams's vision in a thoroughly satisfying evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Southern Belles - King's Head Theatre 2019

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