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In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (Charing Cross Theatre)

A dead marriage is mercilessly unpicked in this rarely performed work by Tennessee Williams

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Displacing accepted ideas of western drama is at the heart of the experimental style of this play. Tennessee Williams became fascinated by Japanese traditional theatre forms after meeting Yukio Mishima, the novelist and playwright, in 1957. His subsequent trip to Japan cemented this interest and is reflected in the dialogue's stilted, unfinished sentences, and an expectation that the audience must complete the meaning, just as a reader completes the sense of a Haiku.

However, this doesn't necessarily make for easy viewing. After its premiere in 1969, no one attempted In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel again until 1983, three months after Williams' death.

It deals with Miriam, a rich, arrogant but frustrated wife who relieves her lust for life by stalking vulnerable young men at home in the Hamptons, as well as on foreign jaunts like this one to Toyko. Meanwhile, locked away in his hotel room her husband Mark, a successful but tormented artist in the vein of Jackson Pollock, crawls naked around his canvasses and feverishly shouts at them as if they were women betraying him.

We see Miriam at work fondling the wretchedly reluctant barman (Andrew Koji) after handing over a wad of cash, but thankfully Mark's antics are painted in words rather than seen.

Linda Marlowe is a stunningly elegant, poised and utterly ruthless Miriam, so terrified of getting old that she carries a suicide pill just in case. This is an impressive tour de force from Marlowe, whose cool calculations steer the production's narrative, such as it is, to a conclusion that would be poignant if Miriam had left us any room to feel sorry for her.

Shambling, rambling Mark is played with gusto by David Whitworth as a man pushed to his limits by the agony of his work, and the indifference of his wife. The voice of reason comes with the arrival of Mark's dealer Leonard, given a cool assurance and a welcome sense of decency by Alan Turkington.

Nicolai Hart-Hansen's gorgeous set design is cleverly raked to give a glamorous sweep to the length of the hotel's opulent bar, and one can only hope he's allowed for a decent amount of padding beneath the flooring, as the leads are both required to take numerous uncomfortable-looking tumbles. Costume designer Jonathan Lipman has perhaps gone a bit overboard with the artist's painty suit, but he dresses Miriam impeccably and Leonard is entirely elegant.

Director Robert Chevara is a Tennessee Williams specialist, and together with this spirited and committed cast, he has created a strong show that manages to maintain its momentum despite the staccato dialogue style and the long monologues. But this may be a play for die-hard Williams enthusiasts, willing to embrace these curiously cold and calculating characters.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 14 May.