With David Suchet currently bashing Lady Bracknell’s back doors in in the West End it seems almost a logical sequence that trash drag supremo Jonny Woo should assail Katharine Hepburn’s New Orleans matriarch role in Suddenly Last Summer. Except he looks nothing like Kate, veering instead towards a creamy mash of Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind, Miss Havisham and Sister Ulrika from Tenko.
How well this serves either Tennessee Williams’ text, or the clientele of Woo’s sociably strange Kingsland Road boozer The Glory whose basement now serves as theatre space – why the subterranean studio isn’t called ‘The Glory Hole’ is beyond irony – is up for debate, although the first night audience seemed engaged and enthusiastic. And was that Lucien Freud’s muse ‘Big Sue‘ Tilley in the audience?
The use of so much of the 1959 movie (I hope it was licensed) compacts the storytelling to a bearable 55 minutes and the all-white costuming is stylized and neatly done as is the use of live video to beat the sightlines – we loved the drag queen platforms covered in masking tape – but the casting is beyond odd unless you’re meant already to know and love these performers from other work.
Giorgio Spiegelfeld as ‘Doctor Sugar’ is convincingly handsome but completely wooden. And he’s the best one in it. Whatever their credentials as cabaret or drag artistes the rest of the supporting cast have no place in a stage play. I’ve often encountered gender-blind or race-blind casting but this is somewhere between accent-blind and talentless. As the reluctantly lobotomized vulnerable Catherine Holly, the role played by Liz Taylor in the film (or somewhat bizarrely by Natasha Richardson in the Maggie Smith TV version) Moa Johansson is virtually unintelligible, and as her scheming mother, John Sizzle can’t find even the blatantly obvious traits in the character.
One of the best aspects, though, is seeing clips from the film again – and ‘spotting’ uncredited British character actors like Murray Melvin and Rita Webb among the inmates of the asylum. As a connoisseur of high camp Woo must be getting a semi over the fact Gore Vidal is one of the ‘students’ watching the lobotomy operation.
Woo is a smart and charming chap, with a lot of off-the-wall ideas which have worked brilliantly for the clubbing circuit so I don’t want to be completely dismissive of his theatre venture. Any new theatre venue is welcome, and the film-to-stage format would work possibly better on a more familiar story like A Streetcar Named Desire which has survived many reinterpretations.
But next time, Jonny, cast actors not friends.
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