One night in a small Pacific beachfront bar: a few minor spats, a few minor soul-barings, but overall nothing much happens; the characters for the most part exhibit various flavours of grizzled stoicism. It does not sound much like Tennessee Williams, but Williams it is. Whether it indicates a writer in decline from the racked dramas of his peak, or whether he decided right at the end of his career to dispense with the gaudier melodramatic trappings and get straight to the heart of his subjects, is a matter for debate. Certainly, on the evidence of this – only its third professional British production in a quarter of a century or more – Small Craft Warnings (1972) is not by any means a slight work.
Rufus Norris's production is at its shakiest when Williams's writing is likewise – abandoning all pretence to actual drama and simply showing the kernels of most of his characters through set-piece monologues, which Norris has little option but to spotlight and direct straight at the audience. The rest of the two hours, though, is taken up with fine, unfussy ensemble playing. As bar owner Monk, concerned for his clients but mostly just after a quiet, undistinguished life, Bill Bailey looks like the father of his comedian namesake but sounds as understated as late-period Robert Mitchum. Kate Duchene's ragged, no-hope Violet – not so much a whore as just a compulsive, casual masturbatrix of any man who comes within range – seems to inhabit a frail, foggy world of her own and yet harmonises completely with the performances going on around her. Ed Bishop almost literally fades into the rear wall when his struck-off, alcoholic Doc is not the focus of attention.
Susannah York's Leona – an ageing beautician in a camper van who blows from town to town once she recognises that she has grown stale to her latest companion – stands out, but does not hog the limelight. Caring and considerately worldly-wise in her more reflective moments, she is as often possessed by a New York kind of jitteriness (all two-handed clean-and-jerk gestures), and both dresses and walks like a superannuated gawky adolescent; it is as if Leona's heart, her desires – the core of her – never grew up along with her understanding; her head knows better, but her body continues to yearn, clutch and lunge. York does not find a wholly consistent path through these contradictions, but nevertheless show refreshingly that there is more to Williams than breathless Southern drawls or the torture of repressed homosexuality.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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