Pros: The opportunity to see the UK première of a forgotten Tennessee Williams classic.
Cons: There’s not much to be critical of, though occasionally the clarity of the young playwright’s lines are lost in his efforts to maintain a Southern drawl.
As someone who wrote his thesis about Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck, you could say I have more than a passing interest in American literature. Williams in the past has seldom made his way to UK shores, save for the revivals of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. This month, London is blessed with several of his plays, the distinction being they are all one-acters.
At the Canal Café Theatre, they have the good fortune to perform The Fat Man’s Wife, a play that was only unearthed in 2004 and is now making its UK debut. Written in 1938, a year before Williams found commercial and critical success, The Fat Man’s Wife strays from the milieu of the South which he become so well-known for, and instead focuses on a Manhattan couple on New Year’s Eve. Their marriage is anything but harmonious, and the presence of a young playwright at the party and at home threatens to bring developments to a head.
One of the reasons why Williams’ plays have such a devoted following is that the women are flawed, but spirited. Complex, but truthful. The other reason is something that has universal relevance – the search for personal happiness. In many of his plays, the characters know what needs to change, but their efforts to rectify their circumstances are thwarted by the actions of others. In this play Williams subverts this – the impediment Vera faces is her own doubt.
Playing theatre producer Joe Cartwright, the eponymous ‘Fat Man’, is Richard Stephenson Winter and his wife Vera is played by Emma Taylor. Both give an exemplary performance, though the lion’s share of the praise should be lavished on Taylor, as she’s on stage the longest. She totally inhabits the role of the Manhattan socialite, who even in her still moments reveals in her body language the conflict between what she wants and what’s best in the long run. Damien Hughes, who plays the young playwright Dennis Merriwether, effuses his admiration for Vera without restraint, revealing both his childlike enthusiasm for, and lack of experience with matters of the heart.
In terms of the layout for the show, director Russell Lucas has opted for traverse staging, where seats are placed on both sides of the room, with the action taking place right by the audience and accentuating the play’s intimacy. The room itself, which is normally used for sketch shows and comedy, is naturally well-suited to this production, with its drapes, maroon colour scheme and turn of the century features.
So if you were a casual theatre goer, would you find this play interesting? Yes, I think so. The conundrum of following your heart versus your head is as old as storytelling itself. Barring the likes of Madonna, the taboo of an older woman running off with a much younger man is still ingrained in the female psyche, as referenced in Abi Morgan’s recent play, The Mistress Contract. But if you want to see the subject tackled in a passionate, timeless fashion, opt for Williams every time.
Author: Tennessee Williams
Director: Russell Lucas
Producer: Canal Café Theatre
Box Office: 020 7289 6054
Booking Link: http://www.canalcafetheatre.com/EventPage.php?EventId=18292
Booking Until: 2nd March 2014, Thursdays to Sundays only