Many fans of Tennessee Williams will argue that by the 70s, when he wrote the autobiographical Vieux Carré, his talent was waning. But we’ll be honest and say that we never really loved the fading Southern Belles of Glass Menagerie or Streetcar, and this darkly comic self-portrait tickles our funny bone.
The nameless writer (a thinly veiled Williams) drifts into New Orleans, settling into a ramshackle boarding house in the French Quarter. It gives him the freedom to become a writer, and also explore his sexuality, although he finds there are personal demons that must also be overcome to obtain liberty. Making up the rest of the urban family are landlady Mrs Wire, who has taken to sleeping in the hallway to keep an eye on her lodgers, two starving old ladies, a horny old painter who takes a shine to the writer, an illustrator and her gigolo boyfriend.
The feuding couple provide plenty of material for the writer, but he’s more uncomfortable when faced with the reality of an ill and attention-starved woman, and her aggressively sexual boyfriend. Tom Ross-Williams plays the writer with a sweetness that highlights his youth and inexperience. You can see he longs to take the jump and be a man, go on the road and be a writer, grab the naked gigolo and… well, but that he is held back by his own fear and the comfort of the maternal Mrs Wire. The rest of the actors take their stock characters and run with them, great comic timing and big gestures lead to big laughs, if not hard-hitting emotion. Paul Standell as the muscular gigolo has a tough role, being serious and aggressive where everyone else can fawn, and he also has a lot of ‘naked time’ – but he meets the challenge very well indeed.
Robert Chevara has thrown together an intense and yet hilarious show. The King’s Head has never been so cramped, filling the tight space with three beds, so that you are close enough to get blood coughed up onto you. You can really feel like you’re sharing the building with these lovely reprobates. It takes a while to get used to the staging, as the first few minutes are performed in near obscurity, but be patient and you’ll start to get involved. Highlights of the show include David Whitworth’s old queen, still trying to be seductive while caked in his own blood, and the two doddery women who try to maintain an air of aristocracy, while begging for food.
Despite its charm, Vieux Carré is not a play that stands up to too much criticism, and whether it really reveals anything about being gay in that time is debatable, so instead I’ll just say that it makes for an ideal fringe production that’s slightly dingy and haphazard, and a welcome diversion from the supposed glitz and glam that defines the West End.
Vieux Carré previews from Tuesday July 10 and the production runs to Saturday August 4 at The King’s Head Theatre, London.
Photographs taken by Tim Medley.