Theatre review: Sex and the drug-addled screen idol - Kim Cattrall excels in Sweet Bird of Youth

Old Vic, London

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Kim Cattrall seems to have cornered the market in raddled, imperiously camp divas. After her Cleopatra at Chichester, she settles, as to manner born, into the role of Alexandra Del Lago, the faded screen icon who is on the run from a failed comeback in this powerful revival by Marianne Elliott of Tennessee Williams's mordantly funny and deeply troubled meditation on the desperate dismay of ageing and the iniquities of racial bigotry. 

Her memory addled by booze and drugs, our heroine peers with some curiosity through her smashed spectacles at the washboard-flat stomach and silky torso of Seth Numrich's Chance Wayne, the local golden boy-turned-gigolo with whom she appears to have holed up in this Gulf Coast hotel.  “I don't mind mind waking up in an intimate situation, but I like to see who it's with...”  

Cattrall's Del Lago oscillates superbly between hard-bitten, grande dame put-downs, hyper-ventilating panic and a certain tender fellow-feeling for this twenty-nine year old failure who is making his own doomed attempt at a comeback in his home town. 

Chance is determined to cart off Heavenly, his childhood sweetheart, in defiance of her white supremacist politico father Boss Finley (a rivetingly vile, apoplectically red-faced Owen Roe). It's a rescue bid that would need balls and, if Boss and his henchmen have their way, Chance will be lucky to leave St Cloud with either of his. 

At first I thought that rising Broadway star, Numrich, looked too young, sweet-faced and in the peak of condition to portray a man struggling with the melancholy of irreversibly missed opportunities. But the actor rises to the occasion stunningly in the second half as his Chance, wired and reeling on drink and pills, spirals into an black, evermore reckless spree of antagonising the community in the hotel bar. 

Using a version by James Graham that seeks to pool the strengths found in Williams's various drafts, Elliott imaginatively exploits the fact that the piece is generally just inches away from toppling into hokey Gothic melodrama and she even uses this as a means of forging a bridge between the public and the private. 

The unbearably loud television transmission of the demagogic racist rally offstage, the lurid lightning flashes it seems to trigger and the brutal centre-stage beating up of the heckler: all this brings home both the chilling political reality and at the same time filters it through the tormented subjectivity of the man whose tragic self-disgust, essential isolation and suicidal passivity Numrich so affectingly and stealthily delineates.  Strongly recommended.

To August 31; 0844  871 7628