Groggily rousing herself from her hotel bed sheets, Kim Cattrall requests her spectacles - the better to inspect the bare-chested boy-toy she’s hooked up with. “I don’t mind waking up in an intimate situation with someone, but I like to see who it’s with,” Cattrall coos. Her verdict on said stud? “Well, I may have done better but God knows I’ve done worse.”
Nope, this isn’t, as you might imagine, a deleted scene from some Sex and the City episode, but rather the opening Act of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, in which Cattrall is starring at the Old Vic. It’s to Cattrall’s credit that the spirit of SATC's iconic Samantha Jones doesn’t hover too closely over her characterisation of Alexandra del Lago (aka the Princess Kosmonopolis), a sexually voracious faded movie star whose desperate flight from a disastrous screen comeback has led her into the arms of one Chance Wayne, a would-be actor still grasping for his big break. But it’s not to the production’s credit that it ends up making something quite cumbersome and clunky out of Williams’s play.
The tale of Chance’s return to his Gulf Coast hometown where he hopes – in a decidedly harebrained scheme - to use his acquaintance with the Princess to finally kick-start his career and reconcile with his teenage lover in the process, Sweet Bird of Youth is far from Williams’s most perfectly constructed work. But still it has interest and appeal. There’s a definite charge to the Princess and Chance’s interaction (they’re both using each other flagrantly but can’t help swerving into tenderness at times), as well as bite and poignancy in the exploration of what “the enemy - Time” does to human aspiration, plus a fascinatingly grisly, animalistic undertow to the piece. In a choice bit of symmetrical plotting, our hero’s girl, Heavenly, has undergone a hysterectomy after being infected with syphilis by him, and Chance now faces castration by Heavenly’s odious politician father Boss Finley and his goons should he attempt to contact her again.
But rather than embracing the kinky, heightened elements that Williams has provided, Marianne Elliott’s po-faced production treats the material with unseemly seriousness and reverence, often draining the humour and quirky lyricism from the piece. What needs to be bright, vivid, bold and arresting is here mostly gloom and pathos. Dan Jones supplies grimly portentous music, Bruno Poet’s lighting is glum, and Rae Smith’s design – while enabling efficient quick scene changes – makes the hotel set look ludicrously palatial. These opening scenes, which should be funny and sexy as the Princess and Chance negotiate the terms of their relationship, seem interminable and turgid; the production achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making Williams look like a boring writer.
Trying for the occasional melodramatic flourish, Elliott adds shadowy figures and hokey lightning flashes to the proceedings, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it and there’s very little camp fun to be had. Nor is the evening very intense. For all its cuts (no hysterectomy, no castration, no evils-of-miscegenation chatter), Richard Brooks’s 1961 film version offered a much more compelling rendering of the play than this one ends up being. Elliott and dramaturg James Graham have made their own trims and tweaks to the text - including (very oddly) the omission of Chance’s final monologue. But with a running time of three hours, the production still feels torpid, and it seems highly likely that further cuts will be made, especially to the first half.
Cattrall (her natural sexiness somewhat hampered by an unbecoming wig) and Seth Numrich (making his London stage debut as Chance) are still clearly in the process of feeling their way into their roles during this preview period; both actors have strong, compelling moments, but sparks don’t yet fly between them. The production’s energy level does thankfully pick up, though - especially when dynamic Owen Roe starts snarling and sleazing away as Boss Finley. His scene with Heavenly (the striking, touching Louise Dylan) and Aunt Nonnie (spot-on Brid Brennan) is the only time when the play’s mixture of humour and menace really steams through. Still, a production of Sweet Bird of Youth in which these supporting characters, rather than Chance and the Princess, emerge as the most engaging figures, can’t feel anything but underpowered. Or rather: neutered.
Booking until 31 August.