FringeReview UK 2016
For the Coronet Theatre Notting Hill Michael Oakley revives this 1978 four-hander comedy of Tennessee Williams. Fotini Dimou has designed a set beautifully congruent with the decayed splendour of the Coronet’s Circle and newly elevated temporary stage, working in with the old reds a garishly red—dominant set in keeping with the theme, and a bedroom whose wallpaper suddenly dissolves with lighting to reveal the opening.
Just as with Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme, Michael Oakley is championing another overlooked play by a great playwright (also born in 1911). For The Print Room Coronet Theatre at Notting Hill he revives this 1978 four-hander comedy which marked a return to form and praise, but cast schedules meant the planned Broadway transfer never transpired. Fotini Dimou has designed a set beautifully congruent with the decayed splendour of the Coronet’s Circle and newly elevated temporary stage, working in with the old reds a garishly red—dominant set in keeping with the theme, and a bedroom whose wallpaper suddenly dissolves with lighting to reveal the opening.
Dorothea or Dotty is a frantically excerising thirty-something Southern-Belle who’s determined to marry society beau Ralph Ellis: having deliriously consummated their relationship she feels she has a claim. Think naturally Streetcar and a dash of Glass Menagerie crossed with the second act of The Importance of being Ernest and you’ll get a flavour of this glorious crash of bouquets – and there’s plenty of garish flowers on display. Mamet’s Boston Marriage might well have taken hints from this play. more, though there’ s a foretaste of Aristead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and the mother-hen protectiveness of its heroine.
Williams has located this paly specifically in the 1930s, though an aborted screenplay from 1950 was the kick-start. Thus we have some vintage Williams situations abraded with 1970s full-on sexual panache. The moment Dorothea relates her first would-be musical prodigy lover’s premature ejaculation – something Williams painfully recalled – certainly raised laughter as it were. It also locates Dorothea in that cleft stick of pre-war thirty-something dilemma: nominal virginity till a late dash to marriage. Tensions around the mores and 1970s take on it provide a real dialectic.
Most of all though it’s the social precision that impresses. Dorothea teaches at the college Ralph his (unusually for a society man) principal of and she’s about to suffer a visit from fellow-teacher Helena who wants, it becomes clear, nothing more from her than money to share a swank apartment where for Dorothea the attraction is a launch-pad to marriage.
But she’s not there yet, she’s living with homely German-American Bodey – a superbly gently and raucous Debbie Chazen, who wants nothing more than happiness for all: Dorothea should give up Ralph and marry her equally stodgy twin brother Buddy. She’s proposing a picnic with the twins at Creve Coeur and the narrative tends to this outing as a conclusion. Laughter’s initially all on Dorothea’s side. But Williams, by now jaded with love, seems gently to suggest companionship, of the kind we see in Maupin for instance from the 1980s, is more important.
Bodey embodies everything Dorothea thinks she disdains and gets the best lines. It’s heightened by the arrival of haughty Helena on the one hand and the woman Helena slams the door against: hapless bereaved German-speaking Sophie Gluck, whose mother has just died, who has little English but much diarrhoea after drinking any coffee. Her mute and muted suffering suffuses the drama in a darkening fleck of ‘Ich bin alein’ which Dorothea unexpectedly finally addresses right at the end. Julia Watsons restrained performance etches this with just an hem of harrowing.
Whilst Dorothea’s cavorting exercises dominate the physical – Laura Rogers is as dipsily vivid here as she is in her drawl and facial expressions – it’s the face-off between Bodey and Helena that provides the most brilliant plumage: literally, since Bodey uses Williams’ bird-imagery to berate Helena, the shiveringly chiselled Hermione Gulliford who must enjoy her electric blue encasing played straight even when she has water emptied on her with more ordure verbally than she wants to handle. Bodey likens her to a hawk, not a songbird, and Chazen delights in ‘boid’ and other Germanised inflections that found their way into New york parlance. It’s clear they’re battling for Dorothea’s soul, and the trump card is both withholding a vital piece of information. When Helena reveals it, the sudden volte-faces bounce around like the tennis balls Dorothea wants to indulge in, as opposed to Helena’s recruiting her for contract bridge. Rogers is on point throughout, and her sudden collapses and recoveries, her language and delivery, mark this performance as a literal high-wire around the nodal points of Bodey and Helena.
This establishes two things straight away: Williams could write near his best late in his career, and there’s one or two other fine plays to unearth; and that he could sustain a comedy. This is perfectly suited to the shambolic grandeur of the Coronet, and could hardly be improved on. It’s a first-rate revival, the best we’re likely to see though hopefully not the last of late Williams. Oakley’s hinted there’s more to revive. Meanwhile, don’t miss this legacy-changing production.