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Review: Sweet Birth of Youth

Old Vic, London SE1

    Cattrall and Numrich (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
    Cattrall and Numrich (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

    With Eugene O’Neill’s peculiar Strange Interlude at the National, this revival of Tennessee Williams’s rarely staged late play is the second utterly involving offering in London by a great pillar of American drama.

    Marianne Elliott’s superbly staged revival adjoins Kim Cattrall’s faded middle-aged movie star Alexandra Del Lago and Seth Numrich’s aspiring actor, Chance. With the help of some editing by playwright James Graham, director Elliott has shaped the less than sure-footed parts of Williams’s original into an utterly captivating and tense whole.

    It is set in the late 1950s and the prime location is the Royal Palms, the poshest hotel to be found in the Gulf Coast town of St Cloud. It’s a place saturated with racism and which Alexandra wouldn’t be seen dead in had not her gigolo chauffeur Chance driven there while she downed her normal cocktail of vodka and pink pills on the back seat. But this is where Heavenly, the love of Chance’s life, resides — albeit in a state of post-operative torment following the sexual disease Chance unwittingly gave her when he was last there.

    If her powerful politician father Boss Finley (Owen Roe) gets his hands on Chance, a terrible revenge will be exacted. He will be aided by the men of St Cloud, some of whom castrated a randomly selected black man as a protest against the end of segregation.

    The production evokes a palpable, sweaty sense of time running out for the play’s flawed heroes and heroines.

    Yet Williams’s characters are as vividly drawn as any in his masterful canon. Cattrall transmits the savvy dignity of a star as capable of self-delusion as of unflinching self-criticism. And, as her reluctant lover, Numrich slides mesmerisingly from invincible arrogance to pitiful self-destruction.

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