If you start rummaging around in the plot of this 1959 play by Tennessee Williams, you may find a few holes or inconsistencies, or you might even struggle to believe in the characters or, indeed, the entire concept. In fact, some commentators find the play melodramatic, and others see it as the beginning of the decline in Williams's writing. In fact, a quick glance at the character list might easily substantiate some of those sentiments. 'Heavenly, 'Chance wayne', and 'Princess Kosmonopolis' are three of the main characters. Those names might have you wondering if the enterprise was conceived by the Marx Brothers, or even Monty Python. But... and this is a big, big but.... in this production, superbly directed by Marianne Elliott, none of these criticisms seem to matter one jot, as the result is totally riveting.
'Sweet Bird of Youth' is generally recognised to be about ageing, at least on the face of it. It has an alternative title “The Enemy: Time”. Tennessee Williams seemed to struggle with this play, producing many drafts and amalgamating shorter plays to create it. There are two main characters, both of whom are struggling to cope with getting older. Chance Wayne is a gigolo who was born in the Gulf Coast town of St Cloud. Extremely handsome, he might have expected to become something of note in his home town. But at the age of 17, he fell for Heavenly Finley, the daughter of a wealthy local businessman and politician, Boss Finley, who had no intention of allowing his precious daughter to marry Chance, no matter how handsome he was. Subsequently, Boss Finley drove Chance out of town. At the beginning of the play, Chance has returned to claim the girl he has wanted to marry for more than a decade. He has arrived with a fading movie star in tow, Alexandra del Largo, who calls herself Princess Kosmonopolis. Alexandra lives on a diet of vodka and drugs of various kinds, and when we first meet her in a hotel room she has almost total amnesia. She can't remember where she is, how she got there, and who she is with. Chance provides the explanations as he downs numerous glasses of vodka, and doles out more to the Princess. His idea is to impress the local townies by using the Princess's car, and a worthless contract he has got her to sign and cajole Boss Finley to let him marry Heavenly. Of course, we know that Chance has no chance of achieving his ambitions. And our fears are confirmed when we meet Boss Finley, who rules both his business empire and his family with a rod of iron. Far from any thought of allowing Chance to marry his daughter, Boss intends castrating him as revenge for infecting his daughter with venereal disease on his last visit.
That might all seem rather contrived, and even a little ridiculous when you look at it in the cold light of day with your clinical, scientific specs on. And, in many ways, I would agree. But the key to this play, I think, is to understand that Chance is desperate and deluded. With a belly full of all kinds of unprescribed medication and near lethal doses of vodka swirling around in his anatomy, we find a man clutching at straws and chasing rainbows. His desperation revolves not so much about getting older, but an almost obsessive need to belong.
Both Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich produce exceptionally watchable and powerful performances. Ms Cattrall's Alexandra de Largo describes herself as a monster - a woman 'full of complexes' and a complex and formidable character besides. She might wake-up with the hangover of the century, but she quickly recovers her wits. At times she is cruel and manipulative, and uses Chance for her own sexual gratification, yet she still recognises that he is using her too. But she also has a softer, more caring side to her personality which is sympathetic to those, like her, who are vulnerable outsiders. Seth Numrich's Chance is a man living on a kind of emotional precipice and, as such more dangerous, and more liable to self-destruction than Alexandra. Blessed with great looks and charm besides, he is a man who had every reason to expect happiness and success, but fate seems against him.
There is great support right across the board in the other roles. In particular, Owen Rowe is the unflinchingly bombastic Boss Finley who would do anything to get his own way, and Louise Dylan as daughter Heavenly is a frail, doll-like soul, lost in a kind of ongoing nightmare.
In my opinion, this is one of the finest productions we have seen over the past few years at the Old Vic. Great performances and characterisations make for a totally absorbing evening. The credit ultimately rests with Marianne Elliott's gifted direction which grounds the production with thoughtful, intelligent control so that, even at the points where we could begin doubting the characters or the situations, we never do. Unmissable stuff.
"I suppose some might accuse Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth of being an overheated and, at times, hysterical melodrama, but boy does it pack a punch in Marianne Elliott’s superb staging...Sweet Bird of Youth certainly isn’t a play for the faint-hearted but boy does it deliver the theatrical goods. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Marianne Elliott’s staging is strikingly extravagant. The sets and lighting are tops. As is usual at the Old Vic, the whole thing is showy, slick, but less profound than it thinks it is."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"What’s missing from Marianne Elliott’s production is a driving energy. Melodramatic flashes of lightning don’t add much, and in Rae Smith’s design everything looks cumbrously palatial. The performances often beguile, but at just under three hours this feels like a long journey to reach a pretty obvious destination."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Powerful revival...Strongly recommended."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Everything that art can do to boost this revival of Tennessee Williams's 1959 play has been done. Marianne Elliott's production is first-rate. The cast, led by Kim Cattrall, is as good as any you'll find in a national company. Yet nothing can persuade me that the play is anything more than overheated melodrama all too rarely alleviated by Williams's instinct for comedy."
Michael Billington for The Guardian