Dance: Saloon dregs

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FROM THE Iceman Cometh to Cheers, bars have proved to be extremely handy locations for any dramatist who wants to assemble a bunch of life's losers and let the taproom philosophy flow as freely as the drink. Revived now in a sadly ropy production by Rufus Norris at the Pleasance, Tennessee Williams's rarely performed Small Craft Warnings (1972) gives us its ratty version of an existential last-chance saloon in the shape of a bar on the Californian coast.

Patronised by the likes of Kate Duchene's helpless, tear-dripping nymphomaniac, a self-hating homosexual screen writer (Nathan Osgood) and John Marquez's thick, conceited stud who uses his lunchbox as a meal-ticket, it's a joint that is not exactly coy about flaunting its symbolic properties. Just in case we fail to get the point that the great sin against life is the loss of any capacity to be surprised, the bar is overhung by a great stuffed sailfish whose goggle eyes give it a paradoxically contrasting look of permanent amazement.

Indeed, one of the problems of this production is that, visually speaking, it is too rooted in naturalism. Admittedly, it might be overdoing things to follow the stage directions which call for subjectivising walls that have "the effect of fog rolling in from the ocean", but the way the play shifts from the sordid small change of existence here (the handjobs under the table, the vomiting over late-night hotdogs) to the spot-lit soul- bearing monologues might seem less laughably out-of-proportion on a set that wasn't quite so stolidly realistic.

The trouble with the play is that, like much of Williams's late work, it is congested with "ruthlessly honest" self-portraits that somehow contrive to be jolly flattering - most obviously the alcoholic medic (Ed Bishop) who continues to practice even though he has lost his licence. Williams is also heavily projected onto the character of Leona, the hell-raising, gutsy, itinerant beautician who is mourning the anniversary of the death of her gay brother.

Susannah York, unfortunately, comes across as someone less likely to be on a reckless, drunken bender than on a Royal Commission to look into the social effects of alcoholism. You'd be about as well advised casting Susan Hampshire in a bio play about Elaine Stritch. It would have appealed, however, to the author's strong sense of the ridiculous.

Paul Taylor

Box office: 0171-609 1800