Sweet Bird of Youth

Youth may take flight and beauty may fade, but society’s need to cast a scrutinising eye on its celebrities never grows old. Wickedly contemporary in tone despite being written in the 1950s, Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth preempts this unceasing fixation with fame’s falling grace and, through a narrative that bulges with the unfulfillment of its fiercely desperate characters, turns the critical glance back onto the judgmental.

Set in small town Florida, the play observes the return of former St Cloud heartthrob, Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich). Accompanied by desolate fading movie-star Alexandra Del Lago (Kim Cattrall), who is in turn pursued by a potent cocktail of neuroses, the aptly-named Chance forces a renewed wave of opposition onto an already turbulent town. Meditating on the point of transition between youth and full-blown adulthood, Numrich equips Chance with the semi-implausible good looks and shameless chutzpah that create a frail and compelling mask for the character’s rapidly germinating fears, regrets and insecurities. While St Cloud’s full-time inhabitants occupy themselves with characteristically Southern fears and campaigns, our pair of misfit tearaways lust for different times at America’s more liberal compass points, dreaming up future plans in Hollywood studios and reminiscing about nights spent on Broadway.

Alert to the pressures and shortcomings tied to the concept of celebrity, Sweet Bird of Youth readily anticipates criticism. Del Lago’s fickle emotional state is neatly aligned with the reviews she anticipates and, no longer embraced for her beauty, the former movie star feels even more exposed to public scrutiny – making irony drip from her sneered phrase, “There’s nowhere to retire to when you retire from an art”. Throughout, Cattrall laps up the wicked sarcasm bolted to her character’s lines and so, despite spending the majority of the show in various states of undress and intoxication, Del Lago emerges as a character of immense, misguided strength. As if seeking oblivion from a town that fears progression, our fading star passes her time living in fear of decline – an emotional vertigo that is illuminated in Cattrall’s full-bodied portrayal.

Under Marianne Elliott’s direction, this production oozes self-inflated melodrama. It’s tense, miserable, flamboyant, comic and brashly showy. And as the ageing lead characters struggle to attract the right kind of attention both on and off the stage and screen, such meta-fictional concerns find a natural home within the grubby glamour of the Old Vic. The paint is also peeling on our movie star’s celebrated veneer and, as Cattrall thrusts herself against a proscenium that functions as just another elaborate detail within her gaudy hotel bedroom, it’s spellbinding to lose touch of where the set ends and permanent Victoriana begins.

How different this tale would be if the characters could be as wise as set designer Rae Smith in their negotiation of public and private spaces. Smith’s shuttered screens function as both the interior walls of Del Lago and Chance’s hotel apartment, and as the formidable exterior walls of Boss Finley’s grand house. Clearly not content with creating spaces that are at once imprisoning and impenetrable, Smith also uses her space to draw out the themes that permeate the public/private divide as Chance’s high school romance Heavenly breezes between the hotel’s shutters and blinds as a shadowed form. A presence as abstract as her name, Heavenly’s emotional power seeps through the two fugitives’ seedy fortress of self-preserving isolation.

Lock up your glass menageries! With subtly unladylike gaps in the lace of her virginal dress, short white-blonde hair and a shrill accent that wastes little time on drawls, Louise Dylan’s ‘Heavenly’ Southern belle offers a crisp opposition between her status as Daddy’s model citizen and as a daring, romantic youth. Boss Finley (Owen Roe) fortifies this tension through his struggle for fading recognition. In his earnest and uncomfortably comic quest to cling on to fading authority, Boss works in parallel to Del Lago, and despite his burning-cheeks and sweltering presence in the muggy Florida night, Roe’s threatened patriarchal figure has a unmistakably chilly quality.

It may deal with some rather heavyweight themes, but this production is light-footed as it efficiently exposes the Southern hypocrisy that engulfs this play. It is testament to Tennessee Williams’s incredible skill as a playwright that this piece can still have such a vicious bite over fifty years years after its first performance; it is also testament to Elliott’s superlative talents as a director that her production encompasses such a zesty modern spark, while still retaining the stifling and oppressive terror of the Southern Gothic.

Sweet Bird of Youth is playing at The Old Vic until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Old Vic Theatre website. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.