Even by the standards of Tennessee Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth is a ripe affair. The plot, in which a 29-year-old would-be actor-turned-gigolo returns to his home town with a washed-up film star as companion, is improbable to say the least; the action sags, and the characters frequently embark on great arias of self-pity.
But the fact that Williams kept rewriting the piece suggests that he felt there was something there. Marianne Elliott’s remarkable production, driven by James Graham’s edited text and a great performance from Kim Cattrall in the lead, seizes on this. Elliott’s staging draws out not just a wealth of autobiographical pain, but a searing response to the viciousness afoot in America’s Deep South in the 1950s.
Chance (the gigolo) and Alexandra (the diva) open the play with their morning routine, waking in a rumpled bed to a breakfast of vodka, pills and recriminations. She’s on the run from humiliation at a failed comeback; he’s on a futile quest to recover the love of his life (a childhood sweetheart called Heavenly). There’s waspish humour here, but in essence this is a portrait of two lonely desperadoes, both on the wrong side of youth, beauty, fame and respectability. In both, we see painful traces of the playwright himself.
This opening scene rambles on far too long. But when the play shifts to the enemy camp – the home of local bigshot “Boss” Finley – things get interesting. Finley is Heavenly’s father and a nasty, noisy advocate of white supremacy. We learn that a black man has recently been castrated by a lynch mob. Suddenly we see Chance and Alexandra as outlaws, stranded between a cruel, prejudiced society and the mirage of escape through fame.
Elliott can’t make it all work: there are paper-thin characters and implausible dialogue, cumbersome scenes and unlikely plot twists. But she wisely surfs the excesses and embraces the play’s lush symbolism, deploying Heavenly as a spectre of the youth, sweetness and happiness everyone yearns for. The two central performances are tremendous too: Cattrall brings dignity, poignancy and desperation to the raddled film star, whose greatest tragedy is self-knowledge; while Seth Numrich starts out all smooth pecs and self-assurance, but unravels as he realises the hopelessness of his dream. Not a great play then, but one that expresses the anguish of the outsider with a raw fervour that this production bravely delivers.