Sweet Bird of Youth

Kim Cattrall stars in the Marianne Elliott’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play at the Old Vic

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich
© Manuel Harlan

It’s a back-handed compliment, really, but Kim Cattrall errs on the side of complexity and good taste in playing one of Tennessee Williams’ scariest sacred monsters, Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito along the Gulf Coast with a small-town gigolo, Chance Wayne.

Well, not all that “incognito”: she’s billed as the Princess Kosmonopolis, and she’s reeling from a comeback failure on the big screen like some insatiate amalgam of Tallulah Bankhead and Norma Desmond.

Cattrall, sporting a ginger wig that makes her look oddly, and inappropriately, like Janet Leigh, plays the charm and the despair, but not the disregard for dignity as she reaches for the oxygen cylinder and swills down her pink tablets with a gulp from the vodka bottle.

Revivals by Harold Pinter and Richard Eyre have long since established this as one of the playwright’s greatest pieces; it’s certainly one of his rawest, roughest and most dramatically shocking.

For Chance has returned to the place where he’s next on the list for castration: he deflowered and infected Boss Finley’s daughter, the divine Heavenly (Louise Dylan), who floats through Marianne Elliott‘s production like an ethereal avenging angel. Finley himself is played with an engaging, dyspeptic brio by Irish actor Owen Roe.

Elliott rightly, perhaps, sees Chance as the central character, but the trouble is she’s cast a good-looking hunk, Seth Numrich, who goes through the motions but acts like a door post.

The extraordinary long first scene in the hotel bedroom, ending in shameless copulation, is only lifted by Cattrall’s exclamation, looking at him: “I may have done better but, God knows, I’ve done worse.” It’s hard to see how, really.

There’s a lot made of the fact that it’s Easter Sunday, too, so that Rae Smith’s daunting hotel setting in greys, creams and whites opens inwards to reveal a jaundiced day of celebration at Boss Finley’s house in the fictional town of St Cloud, as well as the hotel’s cocktail lounge where Lucy Robinson does a drunken turn as Finley’s mistress.

The political rally becomes a witch-hunt. Elliott, fiddling about with various textual options (abetted by playwright James ‘This House’ Graham), settles on the Suddenly Last Summer side of things, with shadows gathering in silhouette while Chance pleads for the recognition of himself in all of us.

This is the weakest part of the play, especially in a character you don’t really like very much. But it’s also the strongest part of the production, heavy with menace and the bigotry of a political faction – Chance’s childhood friends – who have taken the law into their own hands.

There’s an extremely weird performance by Michael Begley as the Heckler, and a nicely understated one by Brid Brennan as Aunt Nonnie. What’s missing is the core Williams poetry of a clapped out diva expressing the downside of Chance’s baseless ambition, the poignancy of failure and sadness of sexual promiscuity.

Come on our WhatsOnStage Outing to Sweet Bird of Youth on 2 July and get your top-price ticket, programme and drink, all for £40. Click here to book.