Review - The Night of the Iguana starring Clive Owen at the Noel Coward Theatre
Beyond the trilogy of acknowledged dramatic masterpieces of The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the extensive repertoire of Tennessee Williams can sometimes seem ripe and overblown. But the last twelve months have seen another trilogy of his secondary plays brought to the London stage in revelatory ways, from Summer and Smoke (which transferred from the Almeida to the Duke of York's) and Orpheus Descending (at the Menier Chocolate Factory) to the latest arrival of a starrily-cast The Night of the Iguana at the West End's Noel Coward Theatre.
Given that its a fully-commercial enterprise, the star billing above the title is hardly surprising, with Clive Owen making a long-overdue return to the London stage (after some 17 years) as Shannon, a former priest-turned-tour guide who turns up, off track, at an out-of-season hotel in Mexico with his disgruntled party of tourists and undergoes another of his periodic breakdowns.
He charts his journey with broodingly intense desperation: he's barely clinging on. The hotel proprietor Maxine Faulk, who makes her own attempt at saving him, is played by the formidable US television and stage actor Anna Gunn, best known for her starring role as the wife of another desperate man in the series Breaking Bad, who makes her own moral compromises along the way. Gunn is a vibrant, spirited presence.
But it is Lia Williams - as so often whenever she appears on a stage - who provides the beating heart of the play, as the spinster granddaughter of a dying romantic poet, as she is described, travelling with the 97-year-old man from hotel to hotel. Williams is simply spellbinding to watch; her deliberately subdued performance pierces the heart.
In the play's best scene, a second act heartbreaker played out between Owen and Williams alone, they find a kinship in their shared experience of depression, and what she dubs "the blue devil." It is Chekhovian in its impact and sense of resignation but acceptance, too.
Director James Macdonald trusts the scene to play it at a tight, considered pace. In fact, his entire staging is a slow-burner, clocking in at almost three hours. But it is simmeringly powerful in its execution, and stunningly realised, with Rae Smith's sets and costumes, lit by Neil Austin, providing a supremely atmospheric location.
A large supporting cast populates it with detail and colour, with Finty Williams making a particularly powerful cameo as one of Shannon's tourists. As life's misfits find consolation and comfort in each other, I was truly moved.
The Night of the Iguana tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moengenberg