Old Vic, London

Theatre review: Sweet Bird of Youth - I wouldn't get out of bed for this, Kim

3.00

Not even the luminous Ms Cattrall can put some fire into a dawdling Tennessee Williams revival

Innocence has been rotted by the passing of the years in Sweet Bird of Youth, Tennessee Williams's 1950s tragedy set in the American Deep South.

When growing up in St Cloud, Chance adored his girlfriend, Heavenly, and dreamed of hitting the big time to impress Boss Finley, her stinking-rich father. Now, Chance is back in town but as a tawdry gigolo, holed up in a hotel with a drunken, drug-addled and ageing Hollywood diva, Alexandra.

Marianne Elliott's Old Vic staging looks handsome, touched rather too superficially, perhaps, with mouldering decay. The slatted shutters of the hotel bedroom slide away to reveal a colonial mansion then a palm court, festooned with lights (design by Rae Smith). Meanwhile, Kim Cattrall's Alexandra is luminously beautiful, even when acting wrecked.

In fact, the play suggests that so-called degenerates may harbour more love, kindness and hope than those who condemn them. Cattrall switches from demanding monster to almost maternal concern, trying to save Seth Numbrich's increasingly feverish Chance from Finley's vigilantes – who are also, by the by, baying white supremacists.

The tension certainly mounts towards the close. In the main, though, time passed very slowly on press night owing to languorous pacing, no real sense of beading sweat, some B-rate casting, and the flatness of many of Williams's satirical lines. OK, then, but missable.

Edgar will never grow old in Bracken Moor (Tricycle, London **), a haunted-house drama set in the 1930s and written by Alexi Kaye Campbell as a new commission for Shared Experience. Edgar was 12 years old when he playfully ventured beyond the grounds of his father Hector's manor. Out on the Yorkshire moors, he met his death.

His mother, Elizabeth, has been a morbid recluse for a decade since, yearning to commune with the spirit world. Determined to snap her out of this, Hector asks their old pals, the Averys, to stay. However, almost everyone is spooked when the Averys' son Terence – Edgar's childhood friend – appears to be possessed by the deceased's troubled spirit.

Polly Teale's staging springs some ghoulish surprises, and Tom Piper's set is splendidly gloomy, all dark parquet and panelling, plus flickering lamps and claps of thunder. Better still, the cast has barely a weak link. Helen Schlesinger's fixated Elizabeth is unsettlingly quiet, wracked yet steely too, resisting the bullish rationalism of Daniel Flynn's Harold. Excellent Sarah Woodward is Mrs Avery, a chipper socialite pushed to screaming ferocity as she defends her own child.

The disappointment is Campbell's script which is too obviously indebted to certain gothic and ghostly classics, including Wuthering Heights and The Weir, and feels like a rehash. Joseph Timms's Terence is never quite convincing because his plummy, period lingo is ersatz and – great Scott! – chronically overwrought. ("It was as if … I wasn't Terence at all but some poor, desperate creature who has always lived and was doomed to live eternally in the darkness" etc.)

Elsewhere, it sounds as if the characters are channeling the playwright's pet theses. They spout mini-lectures on left- versus right-wing economics, on materialism, on the paranormal and psychological explanations of it. ("Do you know, Harold, you're beginning to sound rather like that Dr Freud yourself.") Ho hum.

The preaching is of a higher order in The Amen Corner (NT Olivier, London *****), a forgotten tragicomic gem by James Baldwin, resoundingly revived at the National Theatre by director Rufus Norris.

A ball of evangelising energy, Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the pastor of an African-American Pentecostal chapel, in 1950s Harlem. Her opening sermon, while reviling the wicked pleasures of the world, takes the form of an ecstatic riff, sliding from speech into song and back. Her congregation is, moreover, a storming gospel choir (supervised by the Reverend Bazil Meade and MD Tim Sutton).

The Amen Corner is, indeed, another kind of terrific alternative musical from Norris (of London Road acclaim). The hymns are extended, fading into a soft murmur, interweaving with muted jazz, and running under Baldwin's vernacular dialogue as we watch Margaret's domestic life grow complicated.

Her apartment is right under the chapel, on Ian MacNeil's huge two-storey set. So holier-than-thou schisms rapidly open up when Margaret's long-estranged husband, Luke – a bad-boy musician – rematerialises, needs nursing, and looks set to tempt his teenage son, David, to break away and live a bit.

Though he barely pursued playwriting and became a well-known Civil Rights orator, Baldwin slips the big issues of racism and poverty into naturalistic chat with the unobtrusiveness of a really fine dramatist.

Perhaps Margaret's suppressed feelings for her ex need slightly more exploration, but everyone in this production is first class. That includes Lucian Msamati as the mocking yet tender Luke; Eric Kofi Abrefa as the gentle, confused David; and Sharon D Clarke as his rock-steady aunt.

What's more, The Amen Corner is part of the Travelex Tickets season at the NT so, at each performance, 500 seats are priced at just £12. Hallelujah!

 

'Sweet Bird of Youth' to 31 Aug; 'The Amen Corner' to 14 Aug; 'Bracken Moor' to 20 July

Critic's Choice

Last chance to see Yellow Face, above, at London’s Park Theatre. This wittily constructed autobiodrama, by Obie-winner David Henry Hwang, explores issues of racism arising from the casting of Miss Saigon on Broadway. In East Anglia, at Angles Theatre, Wisbech (tomorrow), Maltings, Ely (Wed) and Key Theatre, Peterborough (Fri), Ours Was the Fen Country slides between verbatim docudrama and expressionistic dance. A moving portrait of a vanishing community.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits