REVIEW: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre, until June 24.

Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith. Photo by Johan Persson
Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith. Photo by Johan Persson
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If you fancy an evening with damaged, self-obsessed, destructive people, then the CFT has got just the thing at the moment – a production which builds powerfully and impressively in the second half after the slowest and most laboured of starts.

Driving it all, indeed carrying it all, are fine performances from Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith in director Jonathan Kent’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 wallow in a world of shattered dreams and miserable humanity.

Harden is Alexandra del Lago, an actress desperate for oblivion and forgetfulness after the apparent flop of her supposed comeback movie; Smith is Chance Wayne, a bad lad and chancer back in his home town and seemingly keen to make something of a relationship which was effectively abuse.

You can admire the skill and artistry of the two performances, but not even such evidently fine actors can give the show’s first hour the life it needs. You wait in vain to find out why we are being asked to take an interest in this piece and in these people right now; the play singularly fails to make us care.

del Lago and Chance are holed up in a small seaside town in a rambling first half which has all the attraction of watching a car crash in super slowmo. Cleverly done, but uninvolving without the wider context which suddenly comes just before the interval with the arrival of Boss Finlay (Richard Cordery), father of the girl Chance has so wronged (Victoria Bewick).

Suddenly we seem to be watching a different play. Cordery’s performance as the bigoted, racist, hypocritical, speechifying politician sparks it to all life, a broader canvas for the portrait of corrupted ideals and shattered dreams Tennessee Williams has been painting so painstakingly.

Finally the piece gets something resembling the impetus it needs, and director Kent skilfully takes it to its grim and depressing conclusion – at the end of an evening which leaves you wondering whether the Minerva wouldn’t have been the better venue in which to stage it all.

Wasted opportunities, dissolute, self-regarding, selfish lives surely require the greater intimacy of the Minerva, a venue which would perhaps have better evoked the small-town claustrophobia and small-mindedness from which Chance struggles to escape.

Of course, the main house should never be exclusively the domain of the light and the frothy, but with nothing to lift it, the production seems just too bleak for a big night out at the end of a long, long week.

Fine, fine performances from the leads, but you still wouldn’t want to rush out to watch it.

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