Review: Four By Tenn
A four-for-one Tennessee Williams special
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London Theatre Workshop present four short plays by Tennessee Williams at the Drayton Theatre. Included are early drafts of some of the author’s most famous works, as well as a couple of lesser-known texts - making this quartet of curiosities of interest to Williams aficionados, at least. The rest of us, however, might struggle to fully engage with this oddly fragmented evening of entertainment.
The cast are clearly talented, but a lack of distinctive direction leads to an awkward and uninspired execution. The performances are big – possibly a tad too big for such an intimate venue – and there are more servings of melodrama than can be sympathetically stomached. Brave attempts at the Deep Southern drawl that all the pieces demand are not always wholly successful.
The set is a glorious collection of period pieces that are shifted into different configurations for each vignette, let down only by the clumsy and perplexing positioning of several empty door frames that serve no apparent purpose other than to impede the action. The decision to represent jars of jam by stuffing red tissue paper into milk bottles is baffling, and the actor who is supposedly reading the cartoon section of the newspaper, but is clearly clutching sheet music for the ukulele, is unforgivable. Endless herbal cigarettes, puffed on by characters who’ve seemingly never smoked before, fill the venue with a sickly sweet haze and create the inappropriate atmosphere of a hippie’s boudoir.
Despite all this, beneath the eccentric dressing and spiritless staging, there are bursts of brilliance. Lowri-Ann Davies as Laura in ‘The Pretty Trap’, an early take on ‘The Glass Menagerie’, is a delight, ensnaring us all with her powerful portrayal of the titular temptation. Tanya Winsor impresses as Annabel the amorous actress in ‘In Our Profession’ – a short skit with a pleasing punch line, and Harry Anton’s shirtless torso in ‘Interior: Panic’ certainly left an impression on us.
The final offering, ‘The Case of the Crushed Petunias’, is something rather special, and made us glad that we stuck the show out to its stub. This tall tale sees Williams in a playful and more metaphysical mode as we witness an unlikely intervention that changes a life forever. Anna Kirke is perfect as Miss Simple, a stuck-in-her-ways shopkeeper, and delivers a delightfully joyful transformation as the piece progresses. Jonathon Marx steals the show as the mysterious young man who manages to penetrate Miss Simple’s barriers, and persuades her to cast off her clutter and finally start to live – a beguiling performance that does real justice to the text and brings it off the page with panache.
A metaphor, perhaps, for the evening. Too much playing it safe, weighed down by unnecessarily distracting dressing, redeemed at the eleventh hour by a lesson in letting go.
GT gives this a 3/5
Four by Tenn runs at the Drayton Theatre until 1st March. More details at: thedraytontheatre.co.uk
Words: Richard Unwin