BWW Review: SOUTHERN BELLES, King's Head Theatre
This year's rendezvous with King's Head Theatre's Queer Season kicks off with Southern Belles, a double bill of one-act plays written by Tennessee Williams. Jamie Armitage, fresh off the multiple Olivier Awards nominations for Six, directs Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens - which are combined together for the first time in history.
The starting play abounds with subtext and tacit understanding: Miss Cornelia Scott is an ageing spinster and lives with her secretary of 15 years in a codependent relationship. Tension explodes when their heartbreaking insecurity come to the surface. Annabel Leventon and Fiona Marr take on the two women, delivering piercing and concise performances.
Leventon is unwavering as Cornelia. Pretentious and imperious, her entitlement and strong personality are unflinching until her world starts to crumble slowly. The sharp-tongue and straight-shooting southern belle opens up and tries to reveal her most intimate desire, only to find a wall in Grace, who evades her questions and refuses to accept the implications of her silent revelation.
Marr owns her character with quiet tenacity; too aware of the deference she needs to engage with her employer. It doesn't matter that Cornelia eggs her on to forget it, she is bound by her past and indebtedness to her. Armitage inserts the romantic subtext almost sweetly, without imposing it on his audiences. It's there for them to pick up on, if they to wish to do so.
The second instalment is equally a gem. Too scandalous to be staged over the course of Williams's life, the playwright never got to see And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens due to the openly gay nature of the material. It details the harrowing encounter between a soft and damaged queen and a cruel sailor in 1950s New Orleans. Luke Mullins is Candy; secure in his sexuality and yearning for companionship and acceptance, the character's essence is poignant and wistful with Mullins's delivery.
He owns the stage with delicate security, playing a dangerous game with the handsome but deadly Karl. His eyes fill with seething fury ahead of exuding desperate sweetness and miserable neediness in a touching exploration of the human soul. George Fletcher's Karl is cutting and caustic, unafraid to project his open homophobia onto the fragile queen, using and abusing Candy to achieve his purpose.
Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen play Candy's tenants Alvin and Jerry. Armitage has them hover on the scene almost constantly throughout the piece, adding a hint of voyeurism to the events between the main characters. They stare at their landlord constantly and ultimately become his saving graces.
An exquisite direction pervades the show from start to finish and, from Sarah Mercadé's design to Ben Jacobs's lights, the production employs a certain kind of gentleness to portray sentimental devastation. Altogether, Southern Belles is a stunning lineup of talent on all levels. From the acting down to the detailing of the lighting, Armitage managed to assemble a winning team.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander