A Distant Country Called Youth

Adapted by Steve Lawson from selected letters of Tennessee Williams
A Through The Looking Glass production in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

A Distant Country Called Youth production photo

This small and intimate company was founded only in the spring of this year by director/designer David Wike and actress/producer Grace Alexander-Scott with the aim of becoming “a nomadic producing theatre sharing a passion for storytelling, education and community support work” and they have certainly taken on a daunting task with this, their first production.

Taking the letters written by Williams during his early life, before he was thirty four and catapulted into instant fame with his first Broadway success The Glass Menagerie, they have used his own words while attempting (and succeeding) in giving us the essence and spirit of the man.

It would seem he wrote so many letters it is a wonder he managed to do any other work at all, and the thought of all the research necessary to sift through and make decisions on selection is mind-boggling, resulting in a very extensive script which they have managed to fit into one and a half hours. Oliver Andrews takes on the task of re-creating this enigma in an outstanding performance which takes us ‘through the looking glass’ and into the heart and mind of Willliams with extracts from the correspondence sent to family, friends, agents and lovers, not simply repeating the words, but re-creating what he might have been doing at the time of writing. Jill Francis choreographed the dancing, but director and actor worked together on movement which has him changing clothes, playing a gramophone, pounding on the typewriter, or reclining reflectively on the chaise longue, constantly on the move without missing a beat and without dropping his Southern accent.

Covering the period when Williams was desperately trying to make his mark in the world, the letters tell of his loneliness, isolation, sexual encounters and the prejudice experienced because of his homosexuality, as well as the difficulty of making a living and also the fondness he had with his beautiful but mentally unstable sister Rose who ended her life in a mental asylum. These were all experiences he would use in his later work and the story is fascinating in itself, but the play is also an inspiration to anyone, particularly the young, to follow their dreams and with determination and perseverance (and a bit of luck) success could be within their grasp.

Criticisms - yes, a couple. No one in the audience seemed to be quite sure what was happening at the beginning when two notes of music were constantly repeated while different voices were heard (the content of their speeches being covered by the chatter of those entering) and people were asking each other if we were intended to listen - which didn’t help at all. Also, there is a lot of humour in the writing yet, despite the audience’s rapt attention throughout, much of this seemed to be lost to them, or passed over too quickly to be appreciated. It wouldn’t do to over-emphasise, but perhaps a few pertinent pauses or a slight change of pace might make a difference.

The production attracted an impressively large audience for the studio, especially considering that there was an excellent Agatha Christie in the main theatre, all of which bodes well for its intended tour next year which will mark the centenary of Tennessee Williams’ birth.

Touring next year to Cheltenham Everyman Studio (17th-19th February), Colchester Mercury Studio (3rd-5th March) and Theatre by the Lake in Keswick (24th-26th March). with other venues to be added at a later date. See www.throughthelookingglassproductions.co.uk for information.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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