“Vieux Carré” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Vieux Carré is a late work by Tennessee Williams that might be dismissed as overblown melodrama, but a new production from director Robert Chevara, transferring to the Charing Cross Theatre after a successful run at the King’s Head in Islington, asks us to think beyond the campery and caricature. In contrast to Williams’ baroque writing, Chevara and his designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen present a stripped-back, minimal affair that focuses attention and allows the poetry in the play to shine.

Set in a squalid boarding house in New Orleans, much of the action in Vieux Carré borders on the macabre or the insane. The gentlemen callers of Williams’ earlier plays have turned into vagrants and the playwright’s approach to sex and death is painfully direct. The occupants of this “New Babylon” seem familiar from earlier work but are now “far past pride”; grotesque enough to make “remarkable tableaux vivants” that even they seem shocked by. Considering the extreme characters, the cast’s performances are admirably restrained: the landlady Mrs Wire (Helen Sheals) sinks into madness at a controlled pace and a tortured love affair is performed convincingly by Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell.

None of the characters is closer to dangerous parody than the “rapacious” homosexual artist Nightingale, so David Whitworth’s performance deserves special note for its appreciation of Williams’ humour as well as emphasising the loneliness that so occupied the author and gives the play its emotional power.

It is Nightingale’s relationship with the play’s narrator, a young writer naturally, that interests most – an autobiographical tease that Tom Ross-Williams has the talent and stage presence to carry. His neighbours are the material for his work but his observations lack coherence and are a shadow of Williams’ own oeuvre. As a play, Vieux Carré is frustrating but Chevara comes within a hair’s breadth of convincing us this is a major work, and that makes his production an important one to see.

Until 1 September 2012

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Tim Medley

Written 20 August 2012

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