Sex and booze flow through Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth which opened tonight at Chichester Festival Theatre but their intoxication fail to raise the spirits of the play’s washed up film star or her ageing gigolo.
Marcia Gay Harden makes her UK stage debut in the production playing a Norma Desmond type, a jaded actress who fled bad notices and disappeared into the bottom of a vodka bottle, unable to face her public or critics.
She looks in a mirror and she sees the fraility of her profession, an industry that gorges on youth and spits out the middle aged.
Knowing that her moment in the spotlight is over she embarks on a road trip with a young hustler called Chance, popping pills, downing vodka and spiralling into an abyss.
Sweet Bird of Youth, originally written for Williams’ friend – and faded film star Tallulah Bankhead – mirrors the playwright’s life.
At the time that it was written – 1959 – Williams was an alcoholic and drug addict, consuming such large quantities of both that it’s amazing he managed to produced anything.
It’s not a flawed play but Sweet Bird isn’t one of his finest. It is populated by Tennessee Williams’ own central casting, stock characters that appear in most of his work.
The has-been actress, the young waster, kind-hearted tarts, mousy church types in white gloves and, of course, the bigoted Boss man, usually a corrupt statesman, plantation owner or town bigshot who rides roughshod over everyone.
They’re all here, playing their part in this story of lost youth and opportunity.
Actress Alexandra del Lago and her “driver” Chance Wayne, find themselves washed up in the boy’s home town of St Cloud, Mississippi, where his true love, a blonde called Heavenly, still lives.
They’re holed up in a hotel and, desperate for a last shot at making it in Hollywood, Chance hopes to blackmail the drunken Alex (who now calls herself The Princess Kosmoonopolis so as not to draw attention to herself), into giving him a film part.
But, rather than be outraged, she recognises his despair, and offers to help him win back his teen romance despite her father, Boss Finley, threatening to have him castrated.
We should be sitting on the edge of our seats as this Deep South saga of love and lost chances unfolds but we’re not.
Director Jonathan Kent lets scenes ramble for far too long and they don’t flow.
Sweet Bird started out as two separate plays and that’s evident here with the first half almost a two-hander between Chance (Brian J Smith, recently seen in The Glass Menagerie in The West End) and Alex, and the remaining characters featuring later in the production.
And moments of pathos and subelty are sacrificed for failing down comedy drunk routines and broad brushstrokes.
But Richard Cordery plays the role of archetypal bully, the cigar smoking, racist and corrupt businessman Thomas “Boss” Finley perfectly.
Harden almost withers under Smith’s overblown and animated drunk routine in the second half and, at times, her voice is lost in Chichester’s vast Festival Theatre.
She’s less the vulnerable actress with a fragile ego and more a cougar enjoying a midlife fling.
In one scene she runs her eyes and fingers over Chance’s well defined torso, positively purring at the thought of bedding a 29-year-old hunk.
“I may have done better but, God knows, I might have done worse!”
Sweet Bird Of Youth runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until June 24.
Sweet Bird Of Youth
Marcia Gay Harden’s UK stage debut as a washed up actress is overwhelmed by Brian J Smith’s raucous drunk routine as fading gigolo Chance in Tennessee Wiliams story of lost youth and opportunities.