The Night of the Iguana, Lyric Shaftesbury, London

The rumbling reptiles of the unconscious
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The Independent Culture

The iguana can be heard wildly scuffling under the decking in this drama by Tennessee Williams, played out on the verandah of a decaying hotel in tropical Mexico. The lizard (perhaps some distant relative of Pinter's famed weasel under the cocktail cabinet?) has been tied to a post and is set to become supper for the boozy, ex-pat American manageress, Maxine. It is also, poor thing, serving as a simile, because Maxine and her guests are at the end of their respective tethers, with bleak prospects.

The down-at-heel tour guide, Shannon - played by Woody Harrelson (of Cheers fame) in Anthony Page's highly commendable West End revival - is teetering on mental breakdown: a lapsed priest who hates himself for entanglements with pubescent girls. Nichola McAuliffe's Miss Fellowes - his latest conquest's furiously prim guardian - looks as if she wants to kill him, demanding the bus takes them all back to civilisation, pronto. Meantime, Clare Higgins's recently widowed Maxine is trying to lure Shannon to her bed but is increasingly frustrated. He is more drawn to Jenny Seagrove's Hannah, the outwardly serene but also long-suffering spinster who arrives, penniless, with her beloved grandfather, a senile poet, in tow.

Maybe this staging would have benefited from a little more cash being lavished on Anthony Ward's set. As the emotional temperature rises and a storm wind picks up, the palm fronds stuck around the verandah take on a risibly unconvincing life of their own. While Harrelson remains patently unruffled by any breeze, a clump of ferns joggles madly behind him. It looks as if the iguanas are having an orgy. Mark Henderson's lightning effects simultaneously leave much to be desired.

Nonetheless, the central performances are compelling, particularly Higgins who - coming to this piece straight from Miller's Death of A Salesman in the same theatre - deserves a medal for all her recent superb performances. Her blousy (and fleetingly blouseless) Maxine is terrifically natural. An ageing party animal, she is raunchy fun and lovably laidback as she swings and yelps with laughter in her hammock, pressing cold beers to her bosom. Yet she's also voracious and jealous, a rotten bitch to Hannah though deeply tender towards Shannon - hugging him when he's falling apart.

Harrelson could be more dangerous and sexually taunting with Seagrove. Though he's muscular and wields a machete in a fury, hacking into a coconut, you never quite believe he beats up women. McAuliffe, manhandling her ward, is more frightening than him. However, he is intensely jittery - never at rest - with a jutting jaw that makes him sound slightly slurry and backward. Although Seagrove seems an irritating saintly bore at first - partly because she doesn't bring out all of Hannah's dry humour - the dialogue, in general, seems funnier, snappier, and far less heavily symbolic than the lengthier script which was aired at the National Theatre back in 1992. John Franklyn-Robbins is particularly perky and entertainingly loud as the gaga grandpa, while Seagrove's stillness and calm in this searching play about loneliness, desperation and mercy, becomes potent, with poignant flashes of suppressed strain and grief.

To 25 March, 0870 890 1107

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

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