Few surprises in this last chance saloon

First Night Small Craft Warnings Pleasance Theatre London
FROM THE Iceman Cometh to Cheers bars have proved to be extremely handy locations for any dramatist who wants to assemble a bunch of life's losers, let the philosophy flow as freely as the drink, and have a ready made rationale for exits and entrances.

Revived in a rather ropy production by Rufus Norris at the Pleasance, Tennessee Williams's rarely performed Small Craft Warnings gives us its version of an existential last chance saloon on the Californian coast.

Patronised by the likes of Kate Duchene's helpless, tear-dripping nymphomaniac, a self hating gay screenwriter (Nathan Osgood) and John Marquez's thick, conceited stud who uses his lunchbox as a meal ticket, it's a joint that's not coy about flaunting its symbolic properties. Just in case we fail to get the point that the greatest sin in life is the loss of any capacity to be surprised, the bar is overhung by a great stuffed fish whose eyes give it a look of permanent amazement.

The trouble with the play is that, like much of Williams's late work, it is congested with "honest" yet flattering self-portraits - most obviously the alcoholic doctor (Ed Bishop) who continues to practice even though he has lost his licence. The author is also projected onto the character of Leona, the hell-raising, gutsy itinerant beautician who is mourning the anniversary of the death of her gay brother, but who, unlike the others, knows how to say "yes" to life. The casting of Susannah York here is a terrible miscalculation. She comes across as someone less likely to be on a reckless drunken bender than on a royal commission looking into the social effects of alcoholism.

The incongruity increases your doubts about the play's supposedly generous, compassionate spirit. Williams's is the kind of generosity, you feel, that would buy drinks all round and then have to scrounge the money for the hefty cab fare home.

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