The great James Saunders wrote a short play called “What Theatre Really Is” and it always comes to mind when I visit the wonderfully quirky, vibrant and thoroughly theatrical Pentameters Theatre, above the Horseshoe pub in Hampstead. Forty-eight years young, Pentameters was founded, and is still run, by the irrepressible Léonie Scott-Matthews and as you sit and watch amongst the chintzy cushions and fading sofas and picture frames and mike-stands stashed in the audience you cannot help but think that yes, this is what theatre really is.
And the theatre on display is really good. Wild At Heart is a collection of four one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, directed by Seamus Newham and produced by La Scott-Matthews herself though “it’s something the actors have done” she informs us somewhat unnecessarily. Besides the impressive list of performers and writers that have appeared at Pentameters down the years the theatre has a particular penchant for Tennessee Williams, Scott-Matthews informs us in her precursorial monologue that is like an additional one-acter in itself (I said it was quirky).
Starting with At Liberty the scene is Blue Mountain, Mississippi in the late 1930s and we immediately see how well Williams writes – and understands – women. It’s a mother and daughter scene and the interwoven themes of failed dreams, stagnation and lives blighted by illness are fully explored in this early microcosm of the big themes that Williams will return to in his later masterpieces. Victoria Kempton is like a purgative on legs as she tries to force her flighty, feckless and consumptive daughter to take the medicine – both actual and metaphorical – that she does not want to take. Ava Amande is excellent in the role of Gloria, finding the right balance, in word and gesture, between slightly tipsy wannabe-glamour- girl and tortured soul trying to keep her head above the drowning waters of her mother’s displeasure.
In Mr Paradise, set in New Orleans in 1939, we find that the Milifandom phenomenon of the last general election was not new. Finding an ancient tome of poems now consigned to oblivion The (teenage) Girl, played impressively by Alice Ivor, tracks down the poet – Mr Paradise – and informs him that she is going to expose his lost and forgotten talents to the world (without the use of social media!) Phil Gerrard is suitably morose, curmudgeonly and uninspired as a dead poet walking who doesn’t want to be exposed: “Wait ’till you see me in the obituary column” he commands The Girl. As an early Williams play one cannot but surmise that this was a prescient characterisation of his own future demise. And Mr Paradise’s stricture that the world wants “gunpowder not poetry” would seem to be a prophetic endorsement of how the Second Amendment is now being appropriated by the gun lobby in the USA.
Hello From Bertha sees Sarah Dorsett (Bertha) confined to bed in a room in the red light district of St. Louis (please note it’s pronounced “Lou-ee” not “Lewis”). Bertha is brash, brassy and on the cusp of complete mental
breakdown and it’s a powerful performance by Dorsett, nicely complemented by Victoria Kempton, appearing again as Goldie, and Alice Ivor as Lena. This is “a kindness of strangers” scenario with Bertha being offered a room but outstaying her welcome as “the girls” now need it and then biting the hand that feeds her by making all sorts of accusations against Goldie and the world in general. Lost hopes and unfulfilled dreams are again the themes and in Bertha we see elements of Williams’s much more developed later character Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Finally we have Talk To Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. In the ’fifties, in a cheap room in Manhattan, Man and Woman rake over the coals of their failing relationship. Brad Johnson as Man handles what is essentially a
passive “listening” role well, generously allowing Alice Ivor (her third role) as Woman to take centre stage and explore the wonderfully poetic language of Williams in this homage to anti-dreams. And Ivor handles this superbly with a subtle, engrossing and highly effective articulation of the pivotal extended monologue in this melancholic piece of theatre. She combines a down-trodden persona with bright, sparkling, fiery eyes as she delineates what she sees as her future. This is how I will be in twenty-five years, she opines. And then in fifty years. Almost a whole lifetime. And we wonder about the genius of Tennessee Williams that enables him so successfully to get into the minds of his female characters. Great writing, with informed direction, and movingly portrayed – yes, that is what theatre really is.
Essential to Williams’s work when produced here is the grasp of accents. After a tentative start the cast handled the accents well – ranging from Southern drawl to New York twang. Sustaining the accent is always key and the these actors all did this successfully. I was reminded, though, of a production of The Glass Menagerie at the National several years back when all the accents were good apart from one. The one turned out to be the only American in the cast.
Director Newham has carefully curated these four Tennessee Williams early plays and has created a canvas of empty and sad lives, mournful and evocative, depicting a time that we must now characterise, I surmise, as part of the pre-Trump era. As for the themes that are explored here I’m not sure that much has changed. But is there a playwright of Tennessee Williams’s stature to make us look at ourselves and recognise the darkness that exists?
Review by Peter Yates
These four short plays date from Williams’ early years as a playwright and are perfect little gems, exploring many of the themes that dominated his best known works.
“A prayer for the wild at heart living in cages.” – Tennessee Williams
At Liberty (1939) UK Premiere: a once successful actress retreats to her childhood home in Mississippi with fantasies of resurrecting her career.
Mr Paradise (1941): in a New Orleans book shop a young woman discovers a forgotten book of poetry that changes her life and where her pursuit of its author, the illusive Mr Paradise, leads to an epic battle of wills.
Hello From Bertha (1946): a poetic play about the life and death of a prostitute, Bertha, in a low-class bordello.
Talk To Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen (1952): a young couple bound together in an endless cycle of hopeless poverty, struggle for survival in a dingy room.
At Liberty and Mr Paradise are two of the ‘lost’ plays that have only been printed in recent years. It has been some time since Hello From Bertha and Talk To Me Like the Rain and let Me Listen have been staged.
Wild at Heart
Four one-act plays by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Séamus Newham
Produced by Léonie Scott-Matthews
Ava Amande, Sarah Dorset, Phil Gerrard, Alice Ivor, Brad Johnson, Victoria Kempton
Production Assistant: Lata Nobes
Music/Sound: Delia Racheru
Set Design: John Dalton
Costumes: Julia Dolimore
Poster Design: Godfrey Old
Publicity: Mae Walsh
Tuesday, 1st November 2016 – Sunday, 20th November 2016