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

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Latest stories from i100
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.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral