Tennessee Williams was an outstanding playwright whose shows have become hits the world over. However, there is one of his plays (And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens) which is not only rarely performed but, due to its subject matter was never performed during Williams’ own lifetime. Luckily, the King’s Head Theatre has decided to bring the play out of the theatrical closet as part of its Queer Season in a production of two of Williams’ one-act plays joined together under the title Southern Belles.
First up was Something Unspoken. Miss Cornelia Scott (Annabel Leventon) is an ageing spinster and daughter of the south who lives in a wonderful house that she shares with her servants and her secretary/companion of 15 years Grace (Fiona Marr). The two ladies have cohabited for so long that you would think there are no secrets between them but, today, there is tension in the air. Not only is Cornelia working hard to manipulate the results of an election to an influential community organisation, but today is the day that she has planned to finally talk to Grace in an open and honest way about things. Grace sensing what is about to come, firmly believes that some things are better left unsaid. Politely but firmly, she rebuffs every attempt of her employer to talk to her, trying to maintain the status quo and not allow unwelcome intrusions into their relationship.
This delightful two-hander is so powerful not because of the writing but because of what has not been written. You get the feeling that Cornelia, imperious and used to getting her own way, was expecting the conversation with Grace to be very easy. A declaration, an acceptance and a new phase in their lives. But Grace’s dogged determination to not allow Cornelia to say what she wants to rather ruins the plan, something that is mirrored by the failure of Cornelia’s political machinations. The big question for me was why Grace resisted Cornelia’s attempts to talk to her. Was she protecting herself or her employer? One of the great unanswered questions I’m afraid.
Following the interval, the second part of the show was And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens. Set in New Orleans, it follows the story of Candy (Luke Mullins) a mid-thirties interior decorator and transvestite who has returned home with a Karl (George Fletcher) a man he has picked up in a gay bar. Candy is slightly worried that having Karl in his home may attract the attention of the two boys who rent his upstairs apartment Alvin and Jerry (Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen) but he is so excited to have some company that, despite some unexpected hostility from Karl, Candy changes clothes and does everything he can to make Karl welcome. The questions around Karl are many and leads one to wonder if Candy has made the biggest mistake of his life by getting involved with this man.
Another extremely powerful play with a wonderful title full of meaning and a very human story at its heart. Candy has money, property and friends but ultimately, he is a very lonely man looking for love. The attraction to Karl is obvious. He is tall dark and handsome with an enigmatic personality – why was he in a gay bar anyway? But ultimately, he is a no-good homophobic piece of trash willing to use Candy to get what he wants, even to the point of physically abusing him if need be. What Candy fails to realise, is that he isn’t alone in reality and there is more to life than having someone in your bed – a fact that is really brought home in the wonderfully touching final scene with Alvin and Jerry.
Southern Belles has brought together two powerful one-act plays that really explore so many facets of life, love, loneliness and redemption. Full credit has to go to both casts for bringing these stories to life so well. The belles (Cornelia and Candy) could be accurately described as people with a limited sense of worth, those who settle on an impossible goal to provide their lives with meaning, but both are ultimately confident that things will work out. And both characters are wonderfully portrayed by Annabel and Luke respectively. While giving shout outs. I have to mention George Fletcher as Karl whose hatred and sheer contempt for Candy is palpable in every fibre of George’s face and body. A first-rate performance if ever I’ve seen one. Jamie Armitage channels Williams in his direction, enabling the audience to know what is happening without necessarily showing them – something that is very welcome in Karl’s final scene with Candy.
As the opening to the King’s Head Queer Season, Southern Belles has set the bar really high for the rest of the shows following it and I would heartily recommend that you get down to Islington to catch this wonderful piece as soon as you can.
Review by Terry Eastham
SOUTHERN BELLES, two ground-breaking one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, headlines the King’s Head Theatre’s 2019 Queer Season. And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens and Something Unspoken are presented together for the very first time. Southern Belles are startling tales of love, loneliness and longing, which cast a light on the lives of those forced to hide their true feelings from society.
And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens stars Luke Mullins as Candy Delaney, George Fletcher as Karl and Michael Burrows as Alvin Krenning. Something Unspoken stars Annabel Leventon as Cornelia Scott and Fiona Marr as Grace Lancaster.
SOUTHERN BELLES is directed by Jamie Armitage (Six) and is co-produced by the King’s Head Theatre and Making Productions.
Two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (including 15-minute interval)
24 July – 24 August 2019
King’s Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
London N1 1QN