Tom and Viv, Michael Hastings’ controversial 1984 play about the volatile relationship between poet TS Eliot and his disturbed first wife, received its first major London revival on Friday (22 September 2006), opening at the Almeida Theatre for a limited run to 4 November 2006 (See News, 24 Jul 2006). Lindsay Posner directs Will Keen and Frances O'Connor in the title roles.

In Cambridge in 1915, awkward American graduate Tom (Keen) meets the wild Vivienne Haigh-Wood (O’Connor) and a whirlwind romance leads to a hasty marriage. But as Tom finds literary success, Viv’s volatility becomes harder to bear. Tom and Viv premiered at the Royal Court in 1984 and was made into a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson.

First night critics were full of praise for both the play and the performances, with many giving Posner’s production four stars. Some expressed reservations, however, about whether the issues in the play are really relevant to modern audiences, and commented that the play began to lose momentum in Act Two.

  • Heather Neill on (4 stars) – “Eliot may be the reason for writing the play, but Viv is its star. Lindsay Posner’s production moves the action along - the scenes are often as short as for television - by the astute use of a simple set with swiftly moved chairs and tables and excellent lighting by Neil Austin. Will Keen, who can act to his nerve ends, is the buttoned-up American who soon loses any trace of an accent as he is swallowed by the British upper class he apparently admires. Frances O'Connor, on the other hand, pulls out all the stops as Viv, exhaustingly ‘mad’ for most of the play’s duration, jabbering hysterically, playfully ‘stabbing’ her mother with a trick knife, hurling Tom’s possessions through doors and herself out of a car window. In the final scene, she is a sane and serious middle-aged woman listening with mild interest to an American doctor explain that her problem had been gynaecological; it was the treatment which made her appear mad. She has spent a decade in an asylum, apparently abandoned by the husband she claims still to love…. Eliot was at pains to separate his work from ‘personality’, but in an age where biography has more fans than poetry, Tom and Viv is a gripping account of a marriage spiralling into despair…. served here by exceptional performances.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – In “Lindsay Posner's well-ordered production…. the acting provides constant pleasure. Will Keen gives us a highly plausible Eliot, looking like a man permanently uncomfortable inside his own body. Frances O'Connor captures Viv's odd mixture of larkiness and intensity. But it is the Haigh-Woods who steal the show. Robert Portal's Maurice is a monument of bovine beneficence; Benjamin Whitrow as the father is all airy detachment; and Anna Carteret as the whaleboned mother proudly announces that ‘Viv had the best cockney accent in Tunbridge Wells’. It's a remark that confirms Hastings' play is far better on the rigidities of class than on the poisoned springs of creativity.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent - Absorbing in its first half, the play dies under its repetitiveness and inevitability in the second. There is little to fault, though, in Lindsay Posner's production, one that, as best I can recall, surpasses in style and vitality the original at the Royal Court. Frances O'Connor deploys much charm, making each of Viv's many scenes of appalling-yet-pitiable behaviour different, each touching. She strikes one as a bit too graceful, though, and Will Keen's American accent, particularly in the last scene, is a bit Martian. Otherwise, he, along with Anna Carteret as Viv's mother, Robert Portal as her brother, Benjamin Whitrow as her father, and Laura Elphinstone as her nurse, are gripping without being overemphatic and touching without being sentimental.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “This is a piece that made me feel uncomfortable when I saw its Royal Court premiere, and it made me feel uncomfortable all over again in Lindsay Posner's excellently acted revival. There is an unattractive prurience about the play, as if the dramatist had his eye glued to the keyhole of the Eliot's bedroom door…. But apart from quoting a few lines from The Waste Land (easily the most potent passage in the whole play), there is remarkably little exploration of the relationship between life and art, and one is left with little more than a soap opera about a miserable celebrity marriage…. Keen finds fleeting moments of charm and humour in his performance as the poet…. O'Connor captures all the troubled highs and lows of his wife, in a performance that movingly captures the fear and ugliness of mental illness. But the acting I most admired came from Anna Carteret, Benjamin Whitrow and Robert Portal…. All three offer performances that perfectly capture English reserve and class-consciousness, while also offering delicious moments of almost Wodehousian comedy. Rarely can laughs have been more welcome than they are here, in this penitentially bleak dramatic wasteland.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) - “A scandal of a personal, social and literary kind is unearthed in Tom and Viv, thanks to the sleuthing of its author, Michael Hastings. This powerful production by Lindsay Posner, in which Frances O'Connor's astonishingly raw and wracked performance as TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, carries the play's dramatic and emotional charge, arrives two decades after Tom and Viv's London premiere. Yet it shows this tragi-comedy of pre-war manners and morals has not lost its high-level impact…. In short, sharp, cinematic scenes, which Posner swathes in too much dim lighting, too many black-outs, unatmospheric music and blandly minimal sets, Hastings presents young Eliot as an uneasy American outsider…. Anna Carteret's Rose, a fine, down-market Lady Bracknell… Benjamin Whitrow transforming Viv's vacuous father into an old buffer running out of steam; and moustachioed Robert Portal, genially radiating stupidity as Maurice, all spark amusement in their bemused culture-clashes with Eliot…. O'Connor's extraordinarily pitiful Vivienne, her voice pitched a few decibels above conventionality's level, moves with the looselimbed ease of the chronically uninhibited or volatile.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell