These obscure Tennessee Williams scripts are classics of the future: Southern Belles reviewed

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

Games for Lovers feels like a smart, sexy TV comedy. Martha is still in love with her old flame Logan whose new girlfriend has a huge libido which he can’t hope to satisfy. When Martha starts flat-hunting she answers an advert coincidentally posted by Logan’s best friend, Darren. Thus, perhaps too neatly, the two warring couples are set up for a massive falling out.

Darren (played brilliantly by Billy Postlethwaite, with shades of Kevin Kline) is the beating heart of this story. He’s a former nerd who works as a City analyst and uses tricks learned from the internet to bed women. But all his techniques backfire and he becomes the victim of his botched seductions. Behind the cocky exterior, he’s just a sweet, shy, lonely youngster trying to keep his spirits afloat while he looks for the girl of his dreams. Drawn to the sexy Martha, he appoints himself as her love-supervisor and orders her to use his infallible methods to seduce a work colleague. Disaster follows. Their teaching sessions bring them closer together and as Logan’s passion for his red-hot lover starts to cool, the tensions escalate. Will Logan reclaim Martha before Darren makes his move? The plotline is predictable but the show grips because the writer, Ryan Craig, knows exactly what makes his characters tick, and fight, and he winkles out comic gold from the tiniest details. Some of the swerves made by the story are not just hilarious but dramatically penetrating. A scene involving a cruel falsehood brings the rival women together in a thrilling exchange of tense, angry dialogue.

The fluency of Anthony Banks’s production is marred by the cramped playing area at the Vaults. Two deep blocks of seats overlook a smallish stage which obliges the actors to swivel first this way, and then that, to get their lines across. Exhausting work. And the set’s babyish colour-scheme doesn’t quite match the script’s raunchy, adult, urban vibe. Many reviewers have complained that the show lacked substance but the same is true of champagne bubbles. This is a wonderful helping of midsummer comedy. Not the least of its virtues is that the writer, in his mid-forties, has perfectly captured the world of lovesick millennials half his age. A peach of a play.

Southern Belles showcases two lesser-known one-act scripts by Tennessee Williams. Their openly homosexual themes would have shocked his fan-base and he probably never expected them to reach the stage. Something Unspoken, from 1948, introduces us to Cornelia, a rich fading beauty who lives in a gorgeous mansion with her widowed housekeeper. For 15 years they’ve shared a home and an easy intimacy, but when Cornelia hints that their relationship might become physical she threatens to destroy their connection forever. Cornelia is a sublime creation, an aficionado of classical music who specialises in waspish put-downs. ‘I consider Vivaldi a thin shadow of Bach.’ As a social climber she’s world-class, mentally grading all her acquaintances according to their prestige and wealth. Yet she insists, ‘I’m not a snob.’ That whopper got a massive laugh from the Saturday night crowd. Discovering a plot to eject her from a ladies’ society, she spits at her enemies, ‘nothing succeeds like mediocrity’. Williams’s stagecraft is a little cumbersome in places, and Jamie Armitage’s sensitive and absorbing production has one obvious error. Not enough cash. A few quid extra would have paid for a vintage telephone and a musical brochure from the 1940s. But the show is worth a look just for Annabel Leventon’s terrific performance as the forlorn and magnificently haughty Cornelia.

The second play has a title that was never intended to appear outside a theatre. And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens dates from 1957 but it could have been written this year. Candy is an emotionally needy property developer who lets out flats in New Orleans to men who cruise the streets each night looking for sex with strangers. Candy talks of ‘queens’ and ‘queers’ and ‘gay bars’ like a present-day denizen of Soho. He’s a tortured, lonely soul, haunted by his fear of ageing, who adores fine clothes and beautiful furnishings and keeps the costliest drinks cabinet in the state. Though he dislikes coarse language or vulgar attitudes, he begins a weirdly abusive relationship with a hunky sailor, Karl, who wants to exploit him. Karl, rumoured to have a history of violence, hates homosexuality because he’s partly that way inclined himself. Candy ignores his friends’ warnings and insists that his passion for the horrible Karl is true love. Their affair feels like a genuine episode from the author’s life. The marvellous Luke Mullins brings out Candy’s strangeness and sweetness, his warmth and bird-like delicacy. He’s like Quentin Crisp but with a Hoover. These obscure Tennessee Williams scripts are the classics of the future. Everyone should see them.

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