In a weekend of major rivalries in the FA Cup, there was a heavyweight affair of an altogether different nature on display at the Canal Café Theatre in Little Venice. Tennessee Williams’s little-known one-act play The Fat Man’s Wife waited over 60 years for its first production, only to face a critical mauling, yet the play’s UK première was met by an appreciative – and sold-out – audience.
Set in the immediate aftermath of a New Year’s Eve party, and the heightened emotion that the occasion brings with it, Vera (Emma Taylor) and Joe Cartwright (Richard Stephenson Winter), an influential theatre producer, return to their home. The time of year means that, despite a lot of trademark Williams imagery and subtext-laden dialogue, the characteristic heat is missing from the situation.
This is not to say that Director Russell Lucas and a talented cast don’t work well together to recreate the intimacy of the Cartwrights’ home. Indeed, innovative use of a fantastic space and a simple lighting design (by Technical Director Ash Mochan) serves to generate an atmosphere of – well, not so much intimacy as claustrophobia. Williams’s characters are trapped in their existence, railing against their own identity and that oh-so-American of topics, the unreachable Dream. Likewise, with the introduction of a third character, the young Dennis Merriweather (Damien Hughes), the audience themselves are trapped in the middle of this potential affair – this impossible affair, this subjunctive affair.
For although Vera is tempted by the impetuous Dennis’s offer to elope, with all its symbolism of an “open sky and open sea”, this is ultimately a fantasy that will never be realised. Half of the tragedy of the situation is the recognition that, despite her slowly decomposing marriage with Joe, they ultimately need and define each other in a way that a relationship with a younger man would never quite satisfy. She is the fat man’s wife, a social identity she is stuck with, for better or for worse. Taylor carries off her role, as one would expect from such an accomplished actor, with supreme dignity: the dynamic between the couple is natural yet enthralling. As the eponymous fat man, Winter is also well-cast, although his East Coast US accent is not always consistently observed, tending instead to roam the country. His choices are by and large excellent, and his ability to portray understated emotion makes a surprising contrast with his indomitable stage presence. At times, his switches between the subtle and the melodramatic are not entirely credible, due perhaps in part to his background in film and comedy, but the weariness and frustrations of the character are always apparent, even in the hints towards his own attempted affair. Hughes, as the courting young pretender, is likeable in his nervous energy – a breath of fresh air into the stale marriage, flirtatious and engaging.
As much as each character is looking to “escape”, the overwhelming sentiment is directed towards the solitude of the human condition, summed up characteristically and succinctly by Vera: “I think we’re all of us more or less lonely.” Lucas’s naturalistic direction is well-observed and the use of space manifests the dynamic between the characters effectively: the distances left between husband and wife on stage are as telling as the monologues directed to their partner whilst off stage, and the use of levels suggests a shifting power play within the triumvirate. Even with the occasional awkward shadow – caused in part by the unconventional staging – the naturalism of the set and acting, appropriately enough, provides welcome theatrical escapism for Williams aficionados and novices alike. Or for those who fancy avoiding the football for an hour.
The Fat Man’s Wife is playing at the Canal Café Theatre from Thursday to Sunday until 2 March. For more information and tickets, see the Canal Café Theatre website.