★★ | Confessional
If a play is ‘rarely performed’ or ‘an undiscovered gem’ then be wary. There’s often a good reason for that: it’s usually because it’s not a very good play. “Confessional” was an early draft of Tennessee Williams’ later 1972 play “Small Craft Warnings” and is a sprawling elegiac piece laden with dramatic speeches. It concerns a group of low life characters in a bar in a grotty seaside town. Its main point of interest is for scholars and connoisseurs of his work in that this is the first of Williams’ plays where he felt able to include openly gay characters.
The bar is populated by the usual suspects that mark Williams’ later works: a drunken and angry woman, a swaggering stud who has a name for his penis, an alcoholic doctor and a washed up older gay man with a boy who’s he picked up at the roadside. They rant, cry, shout and ramble. It’s beautiful in parts and there are poetic moments but on the whole it feels a bit of a mess.
Director Jack Silver has transposed the action from 1950s American to a pub in Southend in the present day with mixed results. The theatre has been transformed into a pub with the audience dotted around at tables and on banquettes with the actors roaming amongst them. Justin Williams’ set is pitch perfect. This is a pub that you’d probably walk in and walk out of again in a hurry. Sticky looking tables, beer and a burger offers and a sense of dilapidation: it’s a pub we’ve probably all been in and wished we hadn’t. The characters fit in well and you can imagine a pub like this being stalked by enraged beautician Leona yelling at her good for nothing going to seed Chav man Bill and her promiscuous weeping friend Violet.
Where the concept flounders is the language. Characters talk in a style befitting of 1950s Southern California and use old-fashioned America language that doesn’t translate well to the present day. The Jukebox has mournful violin music that Leona plays on repeat. There’s something distinctly dated about their attitudes and stances too/ It often feels jarring and stylistically wrong.
The play is still worth seeing for three reasons: the concept, the set and the acting. The cast are universally strong and there’s something magnetic about Lizzie Stanton and Gavin Brocker (and I don’t just mean his too tight clothing or references to his cock which he has named ‘Junior’). The set is a witty and authentic interpretation. The third factor is the concept of the actors having free range. There’s a script and a set and actors. The rest is the actors’ choice on the night. They stand where they want, cry or don’t cry and choose just how dark or how funny the play is on any given night. Surprisingly, this works and there’s a strong chemistry that comes across with a naturalistic feel to the piece in spite of the incongruous language. That’s quite a feat given such lacklustre raw material.
Confessional plays at the Southwark Playhouse until the 29th October
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