Southwark Playhouse, London – until 29 October 2016
Just off the Elephant and Castle roundabout, it’s no surprise to come across a grotty pub filled with strange and aggressive drunks. It is a delightful surprise to find it recreated so realistically inside Southwark Playhouse’s ‘The Little’ space which feels trebled in size as well as engaging its audience who are chatty and sociable well ahead of opening time.
It’s like a one-off episode of EastEnders in which the Dyer and direr denizens of the Queen Vic are transplanted to a caravan park near Southend. While it’s massively enjoyable as an experience, what it does to Tennessee Williams’ play Confessional, originally set in California in the fifties, is less clearly admirable.
Two ferocious central performances finely delineate the woes of women in desperate circumstances: in a performance which will win awards Lizzie Stanton is barnstorming as Leona, an itinerant nail-bar beautician finally taking control of her own life and rejecting a parasitical dick-swinging boyfriend played by Gavin Brocker with a butcher’s haircut and seriously channeling Danny Dyer. Leona is at odds with Simone Somers-Yeates’ damaged vulnerable Violet – first among equals in the absolute authenticity of her performance, much of which involves weeping loudly from the Ladies’.
So what’s the plot? Fights always seem about to erupt but their motives and purpose are buried too deep under such perfectly crystallised surface characterizations that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact this is a Tennessee Williams play from 1970 which has never been performed in the UK.
Is Leona really Maggie the Cat on a hot tin trailer roof or the Blanche Dubois of Canvey Island? Probably not, this is a late work for Williams which doesn’t emit the universal resonances of his bigger successes.
Couched in the estuary accent, they might be spouting Shakespeare as the words often don’t make sense in an Essex milieu – we don’t drink bourbon, or threaten to bust anyone in the kisser down the snarkier end of the C2C line from Fenchurch Street.
Two effete strangers appear: a soft-spoken gay man and a much younger boy who’s thrown his bike into the back of the older guy’s car in hopes of some adventure. Homosexuality was completely illegal when the play was originally set, and suggesting contemporary pub bigotry would be as violent works against the playwright’s purpose, and fails to convince. It’s obviously an inconvenient truth for director Jack Silver and there’s some nonsense in the programme attempting to attach aggressive gay-bashing to the post-Brexit world which is equally tenuous.
All praise to designers Justin Williams and Jonny Rust. Confessional is a bravura immersive experience, with some terrifically good performances. Do it again with a better play. And chicken in a basket.
to 29 October.
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