Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Distant Country Called Youth – Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester

Writer: Tennessee Williams
Adaptor: Steve Lawson
Reviewer: Michael Gray

“The play is memory.”  This little jewel of a piece is simply a litany of letters. Letters penned, or typed, to an unseen supporting cast of family, friends, professional associates, by the young Thomas Lainer Williams.

Skilfully adapted by Steve Lawson, and faultlessly performed by Oliver Andrews, who takes the text and makes it come to life, with subtle changes of mood and meaning adding value to the words. This is a totally believable Williams, with his waspish wit and his effete Southern drawl.

We follow the writer's colourful career – letters to publishers, waiting tables in a hospital canteen, selling Pictorial subscriptions, working in a shoe warehouse, living at the YMCA – and his travels – notorious cabarets in Paris, a gay whorehouse in Mexico – and his long struggle to get his plays staged.

American Blues is accepted; Tom adopts his nom-de-plume. He gratefully employs an agent, polishes a vehicle for Lana Turner, and works hard on The Gentleman Caller, which we know as the Glass Menagerie, “I think it contains my sister ...”, resisting producer pressure for a happy ending.

Tennessee's relationships are difficult - “sadder and wilder” than a Chekhov play. We hear his passionate letter of “robust manly love” to the dancer Kip Kiernan; we glimpse his fragile friendship with Laurette Taylor, the first Amanda Wingfield.

We are briefly aware of his being harassed by Blue Devils, and he reaches more frequently for the bottle of Bourbon on the sideboard. But we are spared the decline and the “accidental” death. The play ends as he resolutely types the final act of The Moth – the one where Blanche throws herself under a train in the freight yards.  One lady confided as we walked thoughtfully out of the studio, “ I'm so glad he decided to go on with it ...”

The setting is evocative - I loved the floorboards with his correspondents' names written on them – the props sparingly but eloquently used: the tailor's dummy, the gramophone just once, his sister's strange green dress. “Tenn” is a restless letter-writer. He flits from desk to chaise longue, from hat-stand to suitcase, as he evokes his Southern puritan family, his one-night-stands, his grandmother's death, his sister's illness. And all the time we are aware that all these influences, all these characters, will shape the plays he is yet to write.

A wonderful tour-de-force from Andrews, engaging the audience, effortlessly persuading us that these long-faded letters are freshly penned as we eavesdrop. Through them, and his perfect performance, we are able to spend 90 minutes in the company of this “whining spineless cissy” whose plays have become classics of world theatre, and whose centenary we celebrate this month. 

Reviewed on 4th March 2011

24th - 26th March: Theatre By the Lake Keswick (Studio)

6th - 7th May: Theatr Clwyd Cymru, Emlyn Williams Studio
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