Vieux Carré, Charing Cross Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Vieux Carré, Charing Cross Theatre
Tennessee Williams esoterica is flawed but fascinating
An erstwhile Broadway flop provides late-summer theatrical fascination in the form of Vieux Carré, the self-evidently flawed Tennessee Williams play from 1977 that nonetheless is worth seeing for anyone attuned to this playwright's singular articulation of abandonment and loss. Robert Chevara's production may be as variable in its casting as is Williams's play in both focus and tone, but when its characters give voice, collectively or otherwise, to the abrasions of life, one is drawn anew into the vortex of an artist acquainted at every turn with psychic pain.
Williams scholars will have a field day sorting through the references - some obvious, others not - paid by this play to the fertile canon of a writer who died six years after Vieux Carré flamed out in New York, following a five-performance run. (That, alas, was the general fate of late-career Williams in his home country.) The poet beaten back by the philistines? That's one way of looking at it, though, to be fair, one can't imagine Williams's plaintive voice accommodating itself to the play's original Broadway home at the St. James, a capacious musicals house given over more recently to the likes of The Producers and Patti LuPone in Gypsy.
Sure, this isn't Williams at his airiest or his most subtle; indeed, a lot of the language is unexpectedly blunt. (The play's equivalent Stanley Kowalski figure often says "fuck", an expletive not spoken on stage when A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway 30 years earlier.) But the fact is, Vieux Carré as a piece of writing needs care and protection in much the same way as its inhabitants, who are seen converging on a New Orleans boarding house in an attempt, however abortive, to connect: in Williams's world, it was ever thus.
Chevara's staging, first seen last month at the King's Head, comes most alive in the Streetcar gloss dominating the multiple plot strands that never really cohere, the play's putative centre - Tom Ross-Williams (pictured above, typewriter at the ready) as an authorial stand-in known, helpfully, as The Writer - qualifying as a comparative cipher by contrast. While The Writer breaks the fourth wall to set the scene (and at one point is given a hand job, a pleasure denied the kindred figure of Tom in The Glass Menagerie), Williams devotes most of his energies to the cut-and-thrust between the vaguely Blanche-esque society girl, Jane (Samantha Coughlan), and the Bourbon Street stripper, Tye (Paul Standell), with whom she shares a bed. An incipient bruiser inclined toward cheesy double entendres on the order of "can't you see I am up?", Tye embodies Williams's quintessential bit of rough veering once again between the terrifying and the tender, and Coughlan and the pec-perfect Standell (pictured below) bring a vivid physicality and some ace American accents to their roles. (It doesn't hurt that the Canada-born Coughlan trained at the Circle in the Square in New York, an address that has known its fair share of Williams plays.)
The establishment's denizens further include cast newcomer Helen Sheals given the Mrs. Madrigal-like assignment of the watchful landlady Mrs. Wire (Sheals is still finding her way in the role, which seems fair enough), who offers herself as a surrogate mother to a Writer otherwise embarked upon his own separate project of sexual self-discovery, and Hildegard Neil and Anna Kirke pop up now and again as a ghostly pair of "scavenger crones". Coughing blood up on the stage floor of Nicolai Hart Hansen's set is David Whitworth in terrific form as a tubercular figure of longing who has made his way to the "future" that, Williams makes clear, is not everybody's lot. Those who do live to see another day get to know the "sound of loneliness" that in Vieux Carré rings out loud and clear - a lament, by turns brutal and lyrical, that for all the play's baroque extravagances is nonetheless worth hearing.
- Vieux Carré at the Charing Cross Theatre until 1 September
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Mendelssohn's incidental music adds to an enchanted Shakespeare evening
Hugh Bonneville returns to the stage after more than a decade in Ibsen's political comedy about a whistleblower
A fast-moving, thoughtful Homer adaptation marks Mark Thomson's last production in charge of the Lyceum
New drama which explores brain science and female relationships is a bit too slight
Patricia Hodge is 70 years young as she globe-trots through musical adaptation of Graham Greene
Iconic musical sails into the West End
Jamie Lloyd's contemporary take is crowded, lurid and weightless
Ivo van Hove's lucid, searing distillation of five Shakespeare history plays
Four centuries on from the Bard's passing, director Tim Crouch picks his favourite death scenes
Sheridan Smith is the greatest star in a winning West End transfer
Annie Baker's microscopic epic leads theartsdesk's stage tips
Annie Baker makes the ordinary extraordinary