Five O'Clock Angel arrives at the King's Head following a sell-out run at last year's Edinburgh Festival. Kit Hesketh-Harvey's play charts the forty-year relationship between writer Tennessee Williams (Stefan Bednarczyk) and Russian-born actress Maria St Just (Nicola McAuliffe). Maria was the inspiration for Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but, as Five O'Clock Angel shows, she played a much greater role in Tennessee's life.
Meeting at a theatrical party, Tennessee and Maria strike up an amusing friendship, forged on gobbets of backstage gossip, such as Maria's run-ins with Edith Evans. In the early stages of the play, there's a strong flirtatiousness to McAuliffe's Maria. She knows of Tennessee's homosexuality, but can't seem to help herself from challenging it. Perhaps she's encouraged when he tells her 'It is the times with you I value most.'
As time goes on, Maria has to accept that theirs will not be a conventional relationship and that she will always take second place to 'the Horse' and Tennessee's various other 'travelling companions'. McAuliffe fades out the flirtation and increasingly turns on the steel as Maria becomes less the delicious distraction and ever more Tennessee's one true support. When Maria marries and has a family, she never shuts Tennessee out and yet there's an increasing sense of isolation to him. Bednarczyk powerfully shows Tennessee's descent into a vicious cycle of whiskey-drinking, pill-popping and self-loathing.
Five O'Clock Angel was created by Hesketh-Harvey in collaboration with St Just before her death in 1994. They used some 300 letters that Tennessee wrote to her over 40 years. But happily that does not mean we simply get a dry exchange of correspondence. Hesketh-Harvey and director Scott Williams bring the relationship to life by showing us Tennessee and Maria both joyously together and anxiously apart. Simon Scullion's economic set has an Ikea-like ingenuity that enables the actors to create a variety of different territories on the smallest of stages.
Running through Five O'Clock Angel are scenes from Williams' plays, which remind us that this troubled man was indeed a genius and, at the same time, showcase McAuliffe's considerable dramatic range. Bednarczyk is perfectly good as Tennessee, but ultimately this is Maria's and McAuliffe's show. Five O'Clock Angel is witty, intelligent and moving, even if it only truly tells one half of the story. Intriguing for Tennessee Williams' fans and literary/drama historians, Five O'Clock Angel also extends a wider invitation to anyone wishing to see some first-rate acting at close hand. And, should anyone be casting a new production of a Williams' work, they need look no further to find their leading lady.