Preview: Small craft warnings, Arcola Theatre, London

A motley crew drowning in their sorrows
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The Independent Culture

The British theatre director Bill Bryden first met Tennessee Williams in a lift at the National Theatre in London, where Bryden was appointed associate director in 1975; he later ran the Cottesloe until 1985.

"Tennessee was going up in the lift to see Peter Hall because we were trying to do his Two-Character Play," says Bryden. "He was wiped out through drink and drugs. I met him later before he died. I was helping him move his estate to another agent. Towards the end of his life he was sober and charming, but he had gone through real problems. We were talking once about the Sixties and he said: 'When I confessed to Gore Vidal that I had slept through the Sixties, Gore said, 'Tennessee, you didn't miss a goddamn thing.'"

Now Bryden is directing Williams's Small Craft Warnings ("the best of the late plays") at the Arcola Theatre in east London. Set in southern California in 1972, it tells the story of nine people who meet in a coastal bar. The authorities have put out a small craft warning, and as the drinking progresses, details about the characters' lives surface.

Sian Thomas stars as Leona, a trashy beautician, and the production reunites members of Bryden's 1970s Cottesloe Company, such as Jack Shepherd, playing the bartender, Monk, and Iain Robertson as Bobby, a farm boy picked up by Quentin, a gay screenwriter. According to Bryden, Williams appeared in an early production of the play. "He played the alcoholic doctor," says Bryden. "He didn't know the words and drove the cast crazy. He thought every character was a bit of him."

Bryden won an Olivier for his National Theatre production of The Mysteries in 1985 and directed the world premiere of Glengarry Glen Ross. He become head of drama at BBC Scotland before directing A Month in the Country in the West End in the mid-1990s with Helen Mirren and John Hurt, and Uncle Vanya with Derek Jacobi and Trevor Eve at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Tomorrow to 18 October (020-7503 1646)