Lovely and Misfit

Mister Paradise/Summer at the Lake/And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens

Three ‘undiscovered’ short plays by Tennessee Williams

Trafalgar Studio 2

(2007)

Review by John Thaxter

After a spurt of enthusiasm for Tennessee Williams a decade ago, his work became relatively neglected in the West End — even a long overdue revival of Summer and Smoke last autumn had its run curtailed despite rave reviews.

So it’s a surprise and delight to report that London is again currently enjoying an impromptu Tennessee Williams festival, with eager crowds turning out for Jessica Lange in The Glass Menagerie at the Apollo, and a National Theatre revival of The Rose Tattoo starring Zoë Wanamaker — the final work of director Steven Pimlott who died in harness — which opens to previews at the Lyttelton from March 19th.

Between these two big-hitters comes the European premiere of three of his shorter plays, a triple bill at the Trafalgar Studios spanning Williams’ most productive twenty years; strongly cast and deftly staged by Australian director Anna Ledwich for the newly-formed Fish Productions company.

The background to this presentation is a mini-drama in itself. As his most openly homosexual work the author had withheld all production rights for And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, featuring a New Orleans transvestite as the central character, which together with Mister Paradise and Summer At the Lake, was only released from the Williams archive at the start of the present century.

Then just over a year ago Penguin published a collection of his one-act plays, including this trio of short, unperformed works which so impressed Ms Ledwich that she decided there and then to find a producer and a production company before somebody else did; never daring to hope she would gain the rights nor see her staging make its first appearance in a mainstream West End studio theatre.

But, thanks to the producer Andrew Fishwick’s networking skills and ATG’s enthusiasm for innovative young producers, her dreams came true. The result is an intimate, small-scale triumph, an evening casting light on Williams’ better-known dramas, with sharply focused characterisations and a set design by Helen Goddard that makes versatile use of cane furnishings and props across a wide but shallow performing space to create three strongly atmospheric interiors.

My own favourite from this collection is also the shortest: an immaculately written conversation piece for a reclusive poet, the Mister Paradise of the title, and a college sophomore who. having discovered a slim volume of his verse in an antique emporium. now plans to restore him to literary fame and fortune as a star of the American lecture circuit.

Jennifer Higham, beautifully cast as the bright and eager girl, does most of the talking. But the staggeringly powerful presence of Broadway actor Ted Van Griethuysen as the shambling Jonathan Jones, better known as ‘Mister Paradise’ in his heyday, has the gravamen to convince her it would be far better to watch the obituary columns for his demise before exposing his talents to a forgetting and unforgiving world. Sheer undiluted delight in both writing and playing.

The second play, Summer At the Lake, written while the author was working on The Glass Menagerie, keys into a parallel mother and son relationship. But here the son is an introverted youth (David Hartley) desperate to escape from his domineering mother, and who finally succumbs to the embrace of a watery grave in the nearby lake in a cleverly staged denouement.

Diana Kent as the woman disappointed by life and her son’s weak personality gives an emotionally wrought performance that would not look out of place on the Apollo stage. But while the piece demands a dramatically larger than life portrayal, Ms Kent gives us graphic realism, urgent whispers and intimate exchanges that do not always allow her words to come winging off the page, even in this small venue.

After the interval And Tell Sad Stories.... (a title drawn from Shakespeare’s Richard II) has the benefit of a dazzling performance by Edward Hughes as Candy, a rich but fading drag queen, deserted by his long term ‘husband’, who picks up a brutal merchant seaman to bring home and set up house together in his luxury apartment.

Given the surly menace of Matt Ryan’s sailor, at once appalled but equally intrigued by the sexual possibilities and the dollar wealth, this is an encounter that can only end in tears and tragedy, although it somehow survives a week of breakfasts and bedtimes before the cruel and crucial crack-up.

Given this inevitability the play, written in the late 1950s, could perhaps have been more effective had Williams trimmed it to a shorter length, perhaps foreshadowing rather than actually revealing the violent outcome.

But the witty, longer opening scene offers us a deliciously rewarding series of advances and retreats, moving from houseproud overtures, through dance and delicate approaches, to a curious moment as Candy, now in full wig, make-up, silk robe and silver sandals, happily organises an expensive hooker as the more acceptable sexual gratification for his macho house guest!