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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




The first London revival in 30 years


Vieux Carre

Tom Ross Williams (Writer) David Whitworth (Nightingale) in Vieux Carre at King's Head Theatre

Photo by Tim Medley


by Tennessee Williams


Directed by Robert Chevara


Designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen


Costumes Jonathan Lipman



King’s Head Theatre
10 July – 4 August 2012
Then transferring to
Charing Cross Theatre
from 14 Aug for a strictly limited 3 week season
Hildegard Neil will take over the central role of Mrs Wire and the show will be redirected for the new theatre. 


Vieux Carre, (1977), set in the French Quarter in the late 30’s, is a memory play akin to The Glass Menagerie (1944), lacking the earlier play’s more tender subtleties. Even though Vieux Carre wasn’t produced till the late ‘70’s, in a very real sense, it preceded Menagerie, as Williams started writing it in ‘38, shortly after moving to New Orleans, and didn’t complete it till forty years later. This mindful-gap likely explains his informed ability to allow characters self-observations during and after, rather than before, taking self-destructive plunges. In Vieux, said plunges apply to addictions of all types: sex, drugs, booze, the past, and self-righteousness delusions, the last of which Menagerie exuded in spades.

Claims Vieux Carre was autobiographical were refuted by Williams as he understandably cited ‘memory takes poetic license.’ However, as he also said that in the play ‘there is a boy who is living in a house that I lived in, and undergoing some of the experiences that I underwent as a young writer. But his personality is totally different from mine. He talks quite differently from the way I talk…’, his statement, ‘you can’t do creative work and stick to facts,’ rings true. But it’s intriguing to speculate all the same.

One made bed and two unmade, pallet boards below. Maybe we’re not meant to notice that last detail, but this is a make-shift landscape, entirely appropriate to Vieux Carre’s crumbling boarding house. Who will occupy these beds and what will they get up to in them? The mind wanders and wonders. Nobody living in these rooms has any dough to spare, that’s clear – beat up coffee percolator and pot indicate that as do stacks of dirty dishes. Happy people are neat people, aren’t they? But this isn’t neat theatre…

On first encounter, the only characters who seem to have their heads screwed on are our narrator, a nameless young writer, seemingly, Williams himself, and the lone Northerner in the play - Jane, an ‘educated’ woman from New York. But first impressions are invariably deceiving in Williams’ written worlds, and the characters here are a veritable cavalcade of contradictions: ranting landlady - Mrs. Wire whose intermittently shown vulnerability’s born of self-recrimination, her tolerant, but aware, nameless, black helper who sings her prayers, Mary Maud and Miss Carrie - two downtrodden old belles with ‘positions’ to uphold, drug/sex enslaved strip-joint bouncer Tye, randy old artist, Nightingale who calls his TB ‘advanced asthma’, young society photographer (and hustler) in the basement, also nameless, aptly named ‘Sky’, there to play catalyst to the writer’s wanderlust, who, though travelled, has yet to break free…Conversely, Menagerie found young writer ‘Tom’ still back in St. Lewis, when he was itching to travel in the footsteps of his father – a (telephone) man ‘in love with long distances.’

Rather than have a premise, this play is more about state of being, and in most cases, as Jane says, ‘just letting things happen to me.’ The ‘me’s’ here are all at odds with one another and, themselves. There’s nothing proper about Williams’ dialogue either, as expressions like ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ are rife. But let’s face it, that’s the way some people talked then, and it’s more than likely the way some red necks still talk now.  The only other writer I can think of who was as frank as Williams was William S. Burroughs.

If you’re squeamish about the contours of reality, you’d be better off revisiting Disney. But if you like your theatre straight-up, this play and this production of it should hit the bull’s eye. Robert Chevara’s directing rightfully, deserves praise, as everyone in this play acts impressively, ably enacting the ways in which their characters don’t.

But this masterful play isn’t simply about turning a mirror on the audience it’s about examining the wrinkles found there too. And its’ loose premise, that of a writer, looking back at earlier days, spent struggling in a declining boarding house, and his involvements with the those passing through the dump they all toss and turn in aren’t necessarily a sure thing, in terms of directors, actors or audience, despite Williams’ theatrical deification (at least up to and including Night of the Iguana (1961) – so mutual cooperation is key to unlocking the essence behind the text. Thankfully, this production’s a wide open door, and we were left, as we should be, with much to rehash.

When this play was first produced, some critics felt it was something only Williams aficionados could love and its early closure seemed to back that assumption up. Though it’s obvious from the outset of this production that it’s also worthy of praise from those in love with excellent writing and, phraseology. Who but Williams, for example, would have a young woman exclaim that a fellow was ‘quite agile for someone of his corpulence?’ and have it sound just right in the context of the bed bug ridden boarding house it’s said in? There’s a music in Williams words that is peculiar to him alone, even today.  

The cast makes this admittedly dense play sprawl its way doggedly into our consciousness, claustrophobic tendencies and all, and the confined space of the intimate King’s Head helps that process along. ‘Ladies’ being first, judging by the roaring response, Samantha Coughlan as Jane makes cohabitating with a muscular lug whose, seemingly, empty headed body she incessantly craves ironically funny, in a cryptic, laughter of recognition kind of way, as demonstrated by her casually matter of fact delivery of the line, ‘I’ve been betrayed by a sensual streak in my nature.’ Though this allegedly, refined woman acts against type, other characters like Eve Fontaine as knowing maid, Nursie, serve as vehicles for Williams own social comments, namely, that ‘niggers’ weren’t as black as they were painted in the ‘30’s. Ms. Fontaine conveys that duality very well. As we all know, those in charge often have loose hinges, but the words Nancy Crane utters as schizophrenic Mrs. Wire are so naturally said, that even her fluctuating accent eventually seems part of her character. Crane’s lines never failed to get a huge response, especially as in ‘normal’ mode, Mrs. Wire’s a shameless busy-body. Paul Standel’s Ty’s a mixed up bag of sensation, with his talk of drugs, murdered strippers and gangster boss. Even the nicest things he says are never believable, making his dodgy, oft menacing character truly, credible. Anna Kirke and Hildegard Neil as scarecrow like Mary Maude and Miss Carrie respectively, seem to foreshadow fading Southern belles to come, as they tightly clutch their almost painfully comic illusions. Jack McMillian’s a jack of all viewpoints here, as the three men he plays, are all of them, free spirits, shown through three different angles of Williams’ perspective of what that might mean: the ‘society’ photographer, who allegedly loves orgies, but in Mrs. Wires’ eyes, is all the more disreputable because he also photographs women from the ‘Garden District, the hustler, as elusive as his pleasures and Sky, whose list of ideas is as long as Route 66. David Whitworth’s predatory artist Nightingale is perfectly judged, and his well timed delivery activates audience response. It’s great to see the adept way  Whitworth interacts with other characters, among them, The Writer, admirably played by uncannily named Tom Ross-Williams, who gently, but effectively, steers this ship - of fools?

Go see for yourself, you won’t regret it. Though you’re bound to spot something recognizable among the foibles on show…Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Samantha Coughlan (Jane) Paul Standell (Tye) in Vieux Carre at King's Head Theatre
Photo by Tim Medley
King’s Head Theatre
115 Upper Street
London N1 1QN
Tues – Sat. 7:15 pm
Sun – 3:00 pm
Ticket prices: £10.00 - £25.00
Box office: 020 7478 0160
Charing Cross Theatre
(formerly New Players Theatre) 
The Arches, 
Villiers Street 
How to book tickets:
phone: 020 7907 7075 
(booking fee applies) 
(booking fee applies) 
in person: Charing Cross Theatre 
(no booking fee applies)
Tuesday 14 August - Saturday 1 September
Monday - Saturday at 7.30pm 
£10.00 Tuesday 14 August preview
All other shows: £16.00 - £19.50

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