The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre Summer 2013
Here is a star vehicle for an actress not in the central role, in a version of the play never seen before, in a production of considerable merit but with too many weak points to be fully satisfying.
American films and TV have little use for women over fifty, and London in the past decade has benefited nicely from the hunger of actresses for strong roles, with Jessica Lange shining in O'Neill and Kathleen Turner in Albee.
Now Kim Cattrall takes on one of Tennessee Williams's most challenging older women, and if she doesn't quite triumph to the degree Lange and Turner did, she delivers a lot of energy and emotional depth.
Sweet Bird Of Youth is really about another character. Chance Wayne, once the golden boy of his small Southern town, set off to become a star but now, already washed up at 29, is reduced to being the temporary toy boy of fading Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, herself fleeing from what she thinks was a disastrous attempt at a comeback.
Chance brings her to his home town to find his old girlfriend Heavenly, symbol of youth and purity and, he hopes, the spur for one more try at success and happiness. But Heavenly is not as young and pure as he remembers, largely due to him, and her family plan violent vengeance for her corruption.
And now a bit of inescapable pedantry: This was one of several plays Williams obsessively tinkered with for years, even after its 1959 Broadway success, and dramaturg James Graham has assembled a script out of bits and pieces of several versions.
So those familiar with the published text will notice lots of additions and omissions and, perhaps, a change in tone.
The Broadway version of the play was, as the title suggests, about Time, and that theme tied the play's various strands together . Both Chance and Alexandra are trying to hang on to moments that are lost, Heavenly is no longer what she was, and even the segregationist politician Boss Finley is fighting a losing battle against the future.
Graham's version consciously shifts the play's centre to Chance's slow and painful process of giving up his fantasies and facing the realities of his past and present failures and their effects. That was there in 1959 of course, but not so baldly, and one problem with this production, which director Marianne Elliott has not fully met, is that everything and everyone else – even Alexandra – seems disconnected from Chance's story, only converging toward it near the end.
It's a more focussed play, but a less integrated one. And a chief victim of that is Alexandra who, rather than being Chance's cohort in the futile battle against time, sometimes seems off in her own play fighting her own separate war.
Given that disconnection, Kim Cattrall occasionally has to fight the script in order to grab the focus and our attention, and it is notable that her best moments are Alexandra's strongest ones – not when the character is weak and pitiable, but when she reaches into her reserves and rages against the dying of the spotlight.
Seth Numrich lets us see from the start the soft and flabby core beneath Chance's buff exterior, but then is only intermittently successful in making that moral weakling sympathetic, at his best in the last third of the play as Chance's struggle to hang on to his fantasies becomes more frantic before he finally achieves a sort of heroism in accepting reality.
The supporting cast range from bland to poor, suggesting a director with little interest in them and further separating them from the play's centre.
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