The Whingers have always celebrated the virtues of good theatrical wiggery, so we are disposed to discuss one particular wig before moving on. Do not be fooled by the production’s posters (right). The tin is very misleading.
Sweet Bird of Youth introduces us to Alexandra Del Lago (Kim Cattrall), a heavy-drinking, pill-popping faded Hollywood legend and self-professed “monster” (who’s just fled the calamitous premiere of her comeback movie), groaning face down in a hotel bed. She wakes up with a panic attack and screams for oxygen. Small wonder; it appears something rather frightful has crawled onto her head during the night. Now Phil’s has a mind of its own too first thing in the morning (his hair that is) and of course Del Lago’s hair’s meant to be a mess, yet there was something about it that wasn’t quite right. Or, as one of the Whingers’ entourage noted sagely, “it looks a bit nylony”. Perhaps that was the point.
We have no idea who was responsible. Old Vic programmes involve the felling of too many trees to indulge in them. Surely that wig has to be changed?
But Miss Del Lago has more than her hair to have anxiety about. She’s just woken up with someone she doesn’t even recognise. He’s Chance Wayne (Seth Numrich), small-town drifter, gigolo and aspiring actor, who’s in town to reclaim his childhood sweetheart Heavenly (Louise Dylan). At the age of 29 he’s also past his peak apparently. An unpleasant reminder (if it were needed) that the Whingers scaled their peak long ago, fully descended the other side and no doubt gone off for a consoling bevvy. And we never sported torsos as smooth as “satin”. Chance’s is so ripped it suggests he visits the gymnasium when he’s not in the waxing salon. He’s certainly anxious to show it off in various states of undress at every opportunity. Unsurprisingly Del Lago and the audience do not complain. Interestingly the poster shows a hint of chest hair; the tin misleads again.
The first hour (of 3) is basically a two-hander, before opening out with scene changes and an extravagantly large cast. It’s not hard to spot that Tennessee Williams‘ melodrama began life as two separate plays. This was a preview, some initial sluggishness can be forgiven, but there’s still some irresistibly grubby cat-and-mouse game-playing between the two leads.
Del Lago confesses she doesn’t like pretending. She’s an actress, geddit? Cattrall still looks remarkable through the mess of make up and that wig (ok, we haven’t moved on quite yet), it’s easy to believe she was a screen icon and occasionally sounds breathily like Marlyn Monroe. Numrich is terrific too and gets even better
once he stops distracting us with his body as the play progresses.
The plot turns nastier when we meet Heavenly’s father, the ghastly Boss Finley. Owen Roe delivers such a compellingly convincing portrait of scarlett-faced bigotry you know things will end in tears. Clues are in the names, though Heavenly isn’t as virginal as her father chooses to display her. SPOILER ALERT Chance apparently infected her previously, necessitating – as Finley tenderly describes it – “a whore’s operation”. Chance doesn’t stand a chance.
Marianne Elliott‘s production, after a few early misgivings, ensures the 3 hours rattle by. Rae Smith’s lavish settings under Bruno Poet’s lighting are credibly deep South. Ruari Cannon as Stuff the barman (!) made an impressive recovery after tangling his braces on a chair and dragging it off with him. And Phil enjoyed interrupting the post-show debate about exactly what disease Boss Finley was referring to by revealing that his first stage Del Largo was played by Lauren Bacall.
So what to deduce from this play then? We’re shown a huge star with a much younger man, each are using each other in a miasma of drug abuse and alcoholic excess. Throw in battles against prejudice and bad hair; it’s the straight version of Behind the Candelabra.
We’re are always banging on about time not being on our side. SBOY reminds us it’s actually cheering for the other team. The Whingers’ usually demand that Vaseline is smeared on the camera’s lens for photographs; in future we will be only shot through a thick layer of tweed.
The original production featured Geraldine Page and Paul Newman who went on to star in the film. Page was married to Rip Torn (also in the play and film). Their New York townhouse apparently had a doorbell christened (rather pleasingly),”Torn Page”.
Here’s a clip (remixed to music unfortunately) from the Liz Taylor 1989 TV version (directed by Nicolas Roeg) which again features Rip Torn (playing Boss Finley, the father of the character he played in the original). Andrew has ordered the film for the next in The Whingers’ sporadic Liz Taylor season. We can’t wait.