Michael Coveney: Sweet birds and words of lost youth

Critical opinion will be sharply divided over the performance of Seth Numrich as Chance Wayne in the Old Vic revival of Tennessee Williams’ over-heated Sweet Bird of Youth. Is he a new star, or a one-day wonder?

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich in Sweet Bird of Youth
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich in Sweet Bird of Youth
© Manuel Harlan

It’s rare to find a beefcake actor as good as Paul Newman, the original Chance on stage and screen, and I somehow don’t remember what happened to Michael Beck, who played the role opposite Lauren Bacall in 1985, or indeed to Robert Knapper, who played opposite Clare Higgins at the National in 1994.

The best Chance I’ve taken in was easily Patrick O’Kane – who is well known – at the Glasgow Citizens in 1992, when he duetted steamily with Roberta Taylor as the decadent diva Alexandra Del Lago. That production, again the best I have seen, was by Philip Prowse, who had designed the first British version of the play, at Watford Palace, in 1968 for director Giles Havergal.

Del Lago in Watford was Vivien Merchant, then still married to Harold Pinter, who in turn directed Bacall and Beck at the Haymarket and, in my view, established the play as one of Williams’ absolute finest, and certainly most personal. This was the moment when the modern theatre had to admit there were masterpieces in old Tennessee beyond the canonical few titles of Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Cat and Night of the Iguana.

Myself, I now look forward to seeing Sweet Bird, Orpheus Descending and even The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore more than the established classics. And a great director like Prowse can make an even slight piece of Williams such as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel seem like an essential masterpiece. This is the point: like all great writers, Williams is always himself, and he never wrote a dud line, even when palpably going down the chute as a self-parodying artist.

I’m not at all convinced that Del Lago is the ideal role for Kim Cattrall, either. She’s been superb on the London stage in David Mamet (The Cryptogram), Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) and Noel Coward (Private Lives). But she’s somehow not large, or grand, or even ridiculous enough, for Sweet Bird, and she was vocally underpowered at the Vic last night.

And the less said about her wig the better. I know I’m always given a wigging for being, as Matt Wolf says, a wig correspondent. But I won’t stop moaning about this until actors decide to dispense with them altogether and make do with what they’ve got. There is no other way. Kim’s wig sticks up at the back and is entirely the wrong shape for her head and face.

Another friend of mine calls these minor obsessions bees in my bonnet. One bee which I’m glad to say has almost stopped buzzing is my insistence that playwrights who do “versions” or “adaptations” of classics by Ibsen or Chekhov should make full acknowledgement of the literal translations from which they are working if they don’t know the Norwegian or Russian.

Even more minor was a little moan I had at the Old Vic a few weeks ago when they ceased selling sandwiches in the circle bar – a light-filled and airy space, far preferable to the cramped, dark basement bar for the stalls – before the performance. A goodly array of super-looking sarnies was readily available there last night. Well done, Old Vic.

Tennessee Williams, of course, always writes like an angel, but there were more sweet words of youth at the Soho Theatre last weekend when I went along to a showcase of short plays written by schoolchildren aged ten or 11.

Amazingly, there was magic, mystery and surrealism in virtually all of them: a girl disguised herself as a boy in order to strike a blow for equality and play soccer for Spurs; a boy sacrificed the money he’d saved for a new bike for his friend’s sick grandma; and a girl who had killed her mother was visited by a conciliatory ghost when she visited the cemetery.

There was a touching tale of two boys separated from their mother in the Syrian conflict, making good in their adoptive home in Istanbul and returning to find her living in a mud hut. There was a lovely discovery of a speaking doll in grandma’s locked sewing room. And there was an hilarious encounter with two Martians, who looked like bonkers caterpillars, cleaning up in a sweetshop (especially the Mars bars) and crash-landing their space-ship in Stockholm.

It was all a far cry from Tennessee Williams, perhaps, but only a child could write lines such as: “Arrogant people have loud burps”; or, “I told you global warming was no fun”; or, “I’d like apple pie without apples, please.”

That last line was Snow White’s (played by a black actress) at Pinocchio’s 64th tenth birthday party, also attended by Alice in Wonderland and a huge pink cut-out of the BFG whose off-stage voiced ordered “fobscottle.” This was only topped by Pinocchio himself turning to the waitress with, “Nothing for me, please, I’m a puppet.” Take that, Tenn.