Tiger Tail is Tennessee Williams’ stage adaptation of his own 1956 film script Baby Doll, itself a reworking of his short play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which was first produced in 1946, as part of his 'Mississippi Delta' collection. These were plays concerning the lives of people living, and working, in and around that particular area of the mighty river. Amazingly, Tiger Tail, originally staged in the US in 1977, has never been presented in the UK, so this new production, now playing at the Nuffield, Southampton marks the British premiere.
Tennesse Williams’ writing seethes with desire and sexuality, and the movie Baby Doll created a furore when it was released, provoking Time Magazine to declare it "just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited."
Patrick Sandford’s new staging is certainly a steamy, sultry affair. Set in the Deep South, violent, bigoted, middle-aged cotton gin-owner Archie Lee Meighan has been married to pretty, empty-headed 19-year old 'innocent' Baby Doll McCorkle in name only. Archie waits impatiently for Baby Doll's 20th birthday just a few days away when, after a bargain made with Baby Doll's dying father elapses, the marriage can finally be consummated.
Meighan has fallen on hard times since Silva Vaccaro set up a competing cotton gin and siphoned off all his business, so one hot and humid evening torches Vaccaro’s cotton gin. Intent on revenge Vaccaro sets his sights on Baby Doll . . .
In a gloriously atmospheric combination of Agnes Dewhurst’s set and David W. Kidd’s lighting, underscored by Rob Jones’ “sounds of the bayou” you can almost see the steam rising, and smell the mint julep, the deep fried chicken and the motor oil in the air.
Rose Reynolds, making her professional stage debut, is remarkable, and stands out from the consistently talented cast, utterly believable as the innocent, or perhaps not-so innocent, Baby Doll. Owen Oakeshott perfectly captures the tensions and frustrations of Meighan, and Ed Cooper Clarke makes a striking Vaccaro, although of all the central characters, Vaccaro is perhaps the hardest to understand. He is by turn sly, vengeful, tender and charitable - especially to poor, universally exploited and ill-used Aunt Rose (in an impressively quirky turn by Janet Henfrey) – so finding any empathy for him is challenging.
Nuffield regular Nicola Blackman is in fine voice as Ruby Lightfoot, and works well with the musicians on stage in several songs evocative of the period.
Although the characters are difficult to like, and perhaps display only the ugliest aspects of human nature, this production is well played, and will be lapped up by those who loved the Nuffield’s last venture into Tennessee Williams’ territory, A Streetcar Named Desire. Tiger Tail is a fine, challenging, dramatic black comedy, which well deserves an outing here in the UK, and the Nuffield do it proud.
Tiger Tail runs at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton until 13 October