The play is based on real events in an American prison in the 1930s. The story concerns a sadistic prison warden who runs his prison like a torture chamber. The prisoners are treated appallingly with beatings, overcrowded jail cells and bad food. When the prisoners in C wing go on a hunger strike in protest of their treatment, the ruthless warden has them put in the hell called 'Klondike', an airless boiler room, were the temperatures are deliberately raised so high that not many prisoners are able to survive it.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, this lost Tennessee Williams' play is a gem of a find. It is an absorbing, gripping and powerful production that is not for the faint hearted. Lasting over 3 hours the action never falters for a minute. Performed in this very small auditorium you feel the full impact of its violence and inhumanity.
Corin Redgrave is authentic as 'Boss Whalen', the corrupt warden who demonises his men and tortures them in 'Klondike'. He produces a fine performance which is almost matched by Finbar Lynch as 'Jim Allison'. Jim is a prisoner whom the warden trusts and so has him help out with his dodgy administration and also uses him to keep him informed of what the other prisoners are thinking. This means 'Jim' is disliked by the other inmates which results in them giving him the nick name 'Canary Jim'. Sherri Parker Lee is impressive as 'Eva Crane' the new secretary who is so desperate to keep her job that she turns a blind eye to the atrocities that are happening, that is until she falls in love with 'Canary Jim'! James Black as 'Butch O'Fallon', the prisoners gang leader, portrays the part with a subdued kind of dignity. Although the men fear him, he is not all bad and one cannot help but have some compassion for the man, even though he is brutal.
The set design by Richard Hoover is perfect for this play. The seating in the auditorium has been arranged down the sides of the stage. There is the warden's office on one end of the stage and the cells on the other. This helps the pace of the play considerably as there are no props to be brought on and off.
The popular press is generally impressed by this production. JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says the production is "A superlative achievement and the National ought to be very proud of it". NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD was very excited about he play saying, "This is one of the most remarkable theatrical discoveries of the last quarter century." However, SHERIDAN MORLEY was not as enthusiastic and said of Corin Redgrave's that he "Had none of the sinister charisma required".
"NOT ABOUT NIGHTINGALES" is a violent play that some will find disturbing, but it is so well written, acted and produced that it is a play that should not be missed.