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

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

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The Independent Culture

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.