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The Fat Man's Wife (Canal Cafe Theatre)

Tennessee Williams' rarely-seen 1938 drama receives its UK premiere at the Canal Cafe Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Emma Taylor as Vera

There's not a single play of Tennessee Williams, however bad, mawkish or slight, that's not worth seeing, or hearing. He never wrote a dud line and he always knew how to demonise his talent.

The Fat Man's Wife (1938) is an early sketch, presumably written during his university days in Iowa, discovered among his papers in 2000 and first performed ten years ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Russell Lucas' production is the British premiere.

Running at just under an hour, it's no classic, but a classic Williams template of an incipient, forbidden affair that will rock the boat of an already imperfect marriage: the fat man's wife is a Manhattan socialite, Vera Cartwright, intrigued by the attentions of a young playwright (guess who?) Dennis Merriwether.

The fat man, natch, is a theatre producer, Joe Cartwright, who is a pig of a philanderer anyway; Vera has the choice to make – Dennis is under 30, she's "over 40" – between unhappy respectability and what Dennis calls "a continuous hello for the rest of our lives."

This triangular impasse, this subjunctive affair, can only end in compromise or tears, probably both, which is one of the great themes of all Williams' major plays. It's fascinating to see him marshalling the tropes, the elemental options, the rumbling antipathies, the surprise of masks and social improvisation, the constant possibility of sailing away in a couple of hours.

The situation snaps into life in the aftermath of a New Year's party, and Lucas' staging fits well into the carpeted, curtained intimacy of the Canal Café – where I'd never been before; it's only been open since 1979! – audience on two and a half sides, creating a floating shoebox effect.

Emma Taylor is a neurasthenic, bony-featured, near-perfect Vera, quivering close to her skin's surface, caught between tears and lust, while Richard Stephenson Winter is a Wellesian whale of Broadway monster, and Damien Hughes an ideal, bright-eyed and callow sexual adventurer. It's a slight and touching piece and a presentiment of a more fully-fledged portrait of the artist as a young man in The Glass Menagerie.