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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Vieux Carr
King's Head Theatre, then Charing Cross Theatre   Summer 2012

Tennessee Williams wrote of this 1976 drama, 'The play is not autobiographical. And yet the events in the house actually did take place.' 

He was expressing his hope that he had translated mere facts into art, and the highest accomplishment of Robert Chevara's new production is that it displays all the play's rich artistry while also offering insights into the playwright. 

Drawing on a brief experience of his own, Williams writes of a young would-be writer living in a run-down boarding house in New Orleans and observing, first with horror and then with growing sympathy, those around him. 

The monstrous landlady guards her domain like a fairy tale ogre and dreams privately of the son she hasn't heard from in years. A well-bred young woman lives in sexual thrall to a crude stud, knowing she is demeaning herself but unable to resist her addiction. A dying homosexual artist yearns for human touch of any sort, and two impoverished old ladies try desperately to hang on to some gentility while starving. 

And the young man himself wrestles with a confused sexuality and the fear that he doesn't have the talent he feels driving him. 

It's a collection of grotesques, and one quality of the play that director Chevara brings out fully is its black comedy, reminding us that Williams could delight in an alternately sly and uninhibited bawdiness. 

But at the core of the play, and also fully realised in this sensitive production, is the playwright's bottomless sympathy for losers, outcasts and those simply unable to fit into conventional social roles. The one shared experience the boy comes to recognise in everyone, including himself, is profound and deeply painful loneliness. 

Ever since it became permissible to speak of the playwright's homosexuality, literary critics have used that as the explanation for Williams's sympathy for social failures, but this play makes a strong case that it was life experiences like this, and his sensitivity to them, that made Williams aware of the defining role loneliness and pain play in so many lives. 

And a bit of pedantry may be excusable here – the fact that this particular story haunted Williams throughout his life suggests his awareness of its importance. The outlines first appear in a 1941 one-act play and a 1943 short story, while the girl-and-stud subplot comes from a twice-rewritten but unpublished 1970 play.

So Vieux Carr is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) deeply moving and hilarious, and this production captures its full range, making it necessary viewing for any Williams fan. 

The role of the young writer may be more a plot device, the playwright's observing eye, than a fully-developed character, but Tom Ross-Williams fleshes him out by letting us see the lad learning to overcome his original repugnance and sympathise. 

Nancy Crane doesn't fully capture the landlady's monstrousness, but by making her more human she brings her within the play's forgiving embrace. 

Samantha Coughlan as the girl and David Whitworth as the artist make it touchingly clear that their characters' obsessions with sex are really hunger for the comfort of human contact.

Nicolai Hart Hansen's set shoehorns more than a half-dozen playing spaces onto a tiny stage, not always coherently, and if this production gets the transfer and extended life it deserves, I hope he gets more room to work in.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Vieux Carre - King's Head 2012

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