Library Theatre, Manchester
Roger Haines's production of this rarely-seen Tennessee Williams play has already been nominated for two Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards as reported by the BTG last week, for best design and for best actor in a supporting role.
The events and characters in the play are based on events and people in Williams's own life. The central character is known just as 'the writer', and he moves into a rather seedy boarding house at 722 Toulouse Street, New Orleans, just as Williams did in 1939. The boarding house is run by a fearsome landlady, Mrs Wire, with the help of her argumentative black maid whom she just refers to as 'Nursie'. Other guests include consumptive gay artist Nightingale, two old ladies, Mary Maud and Miss Carrie, who claim to be dining at all the best restaurants but can't afford to buy any food, and educated New Yorker Jane and her arrogant strip-show barker boyfriend Tye. Williams confirmed that the landlady and the artist were real, and that Jane and her barker boyfriend were real but from another rooming house; 'the writer' he referred to as 'my clone'.
The characters are all struggling to survive and exhibit great contradictions in their characters: Mrs Wire is manipulative and often cruel to her boarders but sometimes protects them and shelters them like a mother; Nightingale, the predatory homosexual, sometimes appears completely led by his sexual desires but at other times is gentle and caring; the whole relationship between Jane and Tye seems a contradiction, which appears to be confirmed by her need to seek out intelligent conversation from 'the writer', whom Tye despises. Although there is not a great deal of developing story, these complexities in the characters draw you into their world and make you care about what happens to them. Towards the end of the play, the character of Sky, who was introduced tantalising at the start just as a name on a bag that had been left behind, appears as a transient musician who gives 'the writer' a way out and the possibility of adventure travelling on the west coast.
Mark Arends gives a very intense performance as the writer and holds all the threads of the story together well. Frances Jeater manages to hold all of the multiple personalities of Mrs Wire together convincingly, from the strong, bullying landlady to the caring mother figure, and then when she starts later on to lose her mind. Her tempestuous but affectionate relationship with Nursie - Yvonne Brewster - comes across well. Robert Demeger's MEN award-nominated performance as Nightingale is very good; he has created a character you can warm to easily but who can also make you feel very uncomfortable. There are also strong performances from Ruth Gibson as the apparently confident but actually very lonely Jane and Nathan Nolan as her selfish, arrogant partner Tye.
Sarah Williamson's set is very nice to look at and quite ingenious, with its multiple platforms and staircases and old, dilapidated ironwork, complete with rotating bed heads and a bed that appears and disappears under the lowest level. Occasionally it is a little difficult to work out whose room we are in as the same room is often placed on a different stage level, not always in the same relationship to other rooms, but generally good use is made of this adventure playground of a set.
The Library has created a very good production of a play by one of the twentieth century's greatest writers for the stage which we do not often get the opportunity to see. By the end it does seem a little too long, but there are some beautifully written and well performed characters, some nice touches of humour and some very harsh and frank realities of the lives that Williams witnessed as a young, struggling, sexually naive writer.
Reviewer: David Chadderton