Vieux Carré

Tennessee Williams
King's Head Theatre
Charing Cross Theatre (formerly New Players Theatre)

Tom Ross-Williams and David Whitworth in Vieux Carré Credit: Tim Medley
Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell Credit: Tim Medley

Tennessee Williams’s plays, established or newly rediscovered, are always an event, an opportunity to review his canon with the wisdom of hindsight and experience.

This is what he himself seems to have set out to do in his reworked 1977 semi- autobiographical play Vieux Carré: to look back on his younger greener self, just starting out as a writer, and his ‘good’ fortune to have roomed in ‘722 Toulouse Street’ in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1930s. A rich seam to mine.

Prolific writer of plays, short stories, poetry, memoirs, essays, screenplays—what didn’t Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) turn his hand to—but there was a falling off in the last twenty years or so of his life, and Vieux Carré, not seen in London for thirty-four years, didn’t find favour when first performed.

With characters archetypical of his better-known plays, and tropes in place, Vieux Carré gets sympathetic attention from director Robert Chevara. His well-received Kings Head Theatre’s production transfers to Charing Cross Theatre underneath the train station, whose trains rumbling overhead add frisson and atmosphere to the play.

Vieux Carré is set in a purgatory of the soul, or God’s waiting room. But God’s “phone is disconnected” to the inhabitants of this down-at-heel boarding house, run by a crazed landlady Mrs Wire (‘three furies in one’), who sleeps in an armchair on guard in the hall. And thinks nothing of throwing scalding water over the dissolute Photographer and his ‘subjects’ as if they were cats on heat.

Distressed gentlefolk, the two old ladies Mary Maude and Miss Carrie (Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil), starving shadows in their dark damp room, never know whether it is day or night as their light bulb is out, and Mrs Wire (Helen Sheals) never replaces light bulbs.

Nightingale, the predatory painter (“all faggots are artistic”) denying he is dying of consumption, popping his ‘Sandman specials’, steals his light bulbs from the gents, where he solicits his ‘cousins’. And, tries to give ‘a helping hand’ to the young Writer next door, the ‘rapacious’ life force undimmed.

Across the corridor to The Writer is well-educated New York Jane (Samantha Coughlan), playing solitary chess, drinking bourbon, waiting for her death warrant letter and for her lover Tye (Paul Standell), a well-endowed junkie strip-joint barker, who tells her stories she doesn’t want to hear... and takes her by force. Echoes of Streetcar Named Desire… “I’ve been betrayed by a sensual streak in my nature”, Jane confesses… and so many others.

The house never sleeps. The Writer, gathering the stories about him—"writers are shameless spies"—taps, taps away on his typewriter, thunder rolls, jazz from the corner of the street floats up, gospel songs are heard (excellent sound design from Lee Davies), as he captures the ‘sound of loneliness’ all around him.

Williams shines a spotlight on a menagerie of fragile brittle creatures living a semi-life in semi-darkness. Nursie (Eva Fontaine) dressed in white kisses Nightingale (David Whitworth) on his bloodstained lips and leads him away into the dazzling light, the sensual and the spiritual becoming one.

Tales from a house heaving with them, real, imaginary, concealed truths and lies, Williams catches their bittersweet music. Variations on variations his songs sing to us across time and distance. Fading ghosts from the past reach out for a breath of life.

On a claustrophobic set (Nicolai Hart Hansen) where bed jostles bed and rooms collide under a fire escape, there is no escape. In a huis clos hell may be other people, but the smallest human touch, an extra pillow, a bowl of gumbo, brings a radiant moment of hope and compassion.

To this journey of discovery into the human condition in the lower depths of society, to l’education sentimentale of an embryonic Writer, Tom Ross-Williams brings a gentle but persuasive art. And the creative crew an impressive visual and aural backcloth to that young pilgrim’s progress, but Charing Cross Theatre’s long auditorium may alienate some: I overheard that audibility was poor towards the back.

What the production gained from the intimacy of the King’s Head Theatre may be dissipated in the lengthy vistas of the former music hall underneath the arches. But, looking through a glass darkly is exactly the perspective for a Tennessee Williams play.

“I just felt like screaming, that’s all”, Mrs Wire shrugs. A scream with all the pent-up longing, pain, heartache, and disillusionments that life accrues, Williams permits his characters to ‘encounter’ their true nature. We “need to cut each other some slack in the world”. That Robert Chevara has done.

Reviewer: Vera Liber