BWW Review: SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, Chichester Festival Theatre
Continuing Chichester Festival Theatre's run of plays, prior to its first musical offering of the season, is Tennessee Williams' 1959 work Sweet Bird of Youth. It comes a few months after Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie enjoyed an Olivier-nominated run at the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End, sharing a cast member (Brian J. Smith).
Chance Wayne has returned to his home town of St Cloud following a lengthy absence where he sought fame and fortune, instead ending up as a gigolo. His current companion is ageing film star Alexandra Del Largo, who has run away from her latest output in fear of humiliation and rejection. Chance's return is mostly motivated by his desire to reunite with childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley, little knowing that their sexual encounter as teenagers left her diseased and resulted in an accidental hysterectomy. Her father and brother want revenge on Chance, so he must decide whether to flee or stay and face up to his actions.
Anthony Ward's set design is initially deceptive, with a bare stage and a sculpture suspended above it. In actual fact, an entire world has been hidden backstage. From Chance's hotel room to a very sophisticated bar, it is a visually stunning production with great depth and scale. The only minor issue is that the intimacy of the bedroom is slightly lost with the Festival Theatre's large stage and expansive auditorium.
There is also interesting use of video (Andrzej Goulding) to broadcast Boss Finley's speech at the Easter Sunday rally - it feels a little anachronistic in that it is shown on several large, flat-screen televisions, but it is a great way of allowing that speech to be seen without a scene transition, and the audience can also see the reactions of other characters as he speaks.
The play has a large character list, despite it being mostly about the central pair of Chance and Alexandra. Of the rest Richard Cordery is lively and entertaining as Boss Finley, showing a great degree of authority, and Victoria Bewick is haunting and sullen as Heavenly - in her white dress at the rally she really does seem like a ghost of herself.
Marcia Gay Harden captures Alexandra's despair and desperation, reaching an all-time low as she seeks him out in the bar - his rejection seeming all the more brutal for it. Nonetheless, Brian J. Smith's portrayal of Chance is not devoid of sympathetic moments; initially he's something of a Jay Gatsby, hoping things will be as he left them with Heavenly when he comes back into her life, but his slow realisation that this is not the case does make you sympathise with him.
It does take quite a bit of concentration as the groundwork is laid in the first act, but it is worth it as the story gains momentum after the interval. The bar scene is a particular highlight, as it flows seamlessly between comedy and drama, eventually proving the turning point as it exposes both Chance and Alexandra's flaws very publicly. It might be better suited to a slightly smaller stage, but there's no doubting the power of the play's message and the quality of performance from all involved.
Picture credit: Johan Persson