You can always rely on Tennessee Williams for atmosphere and the Old Vic’s production of Sweet Bird of Youth is full of tension and claustrophobic small-town menace. Kim Cattrall plays Alexandra Del Lago, a faded movie star who has fled the premier of her return film and wakes up delirious in a small Southern American hotel. Beside her is Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich), himself an aspiring actor turned gigolo, past his youth and yet to find his big break, who has returned to his hometown to rescue his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Findlay. We also meet the Findlay family, Boss who runs the town, and his son who heads the local racist lynch-mob with his friends. Chance had last visited the town a few years before to brag about his film success (which has since come to nothing) on which occasion his relationship with Heavenly took a murkier turn and now the Findlays are out for his blood.
For Cattrall’s Del Lago imagine a post-comeback Norma Desmond (without the dead writer in the swimming pool), sustained by drink, drugs and chance encounters, but still alive to Wayne’s attempts to manipulate her. Despite the star billing, it is Numrich however who gives the most interesting and multi-layered performance as a man still clinging to dreams of stardom which are long over, and to the fantasy of a relationship he had irrevocably destroyed years before. There are some very good scenes in the hotel bar where Wayne begins to realise his mistake in coming back, building up to the almost inevitable tragedy of the final act where given the chance to escape his fate with Del Lago, he chooses to be swallowed by it.
The set is excellent and cleverly designed, almost seamlessly moving from hotel room to Boss Findlay’s veranda to the hotel’s grand bar. But it is the tension this play creates which makes it so gripping – it may not be Williams’s most celebrated play but it is darker and in some ways more oppressive than his other works. So enjoy the drama and the performances, but be prepared to hold your breath till the end!