‘Southern Belles’ is a double bill of two one act plays from the back catalogue of Tennessee Williams. Not specifically intended to be performed together, they nevertheless compliment each other here, allowing the audience to draw parallels between the characters.
The first, ‘Something Unpsoken’ is an acerbic, witty examination of a relationship between two women; one a wealthy southern spinster, the other her live-in secretary. As the name suggests, there is a subtext to their companionship which appears never to have been discussed until the moment we join them. Unfortunately, despite some peppy dialogue, this play falls flat. The actresses Annabel Leventon and Fiona Marr hint at good performances but there is a distinct lack of chemistry between them on stage. This is not helped by the staging which no doubt was designed to create intimacy but instead, intrudes upon the scene. The audience, seated in close proximity on three sides, are almost as lit up as the actors and visible to the opposing rows of audience members. While we may read into this the director’s intentions to invite the audience in, casting them as bystanders or voyeurs perhaps, the effect is to completely dissipate what little tension there is created. Tennessee Williams’ plays thrive on the ability of the performers to build and sustain a palpable tension between characters, and so regrettably this is a serous failing.
The second play ‘And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens‘ fares much better. Luke Mullins and George Fletcher as the two leads, have instant stage presence and the space feels transformed in their hands. Again we witness a relationship between two individuals and a dangerous power dynamic, but this time a sense of depressing inevitability hangs in the air throughout. Mullins plays Candy with such commitment and passion that it is mesmerising,and heart breaking, to watch; the performance perfectly counter-balanced by Fletcher’s quiet aggression.
It is always startling to see the modern echoed in the old, and there is definitely a feeling of this here. The play’s use of gay vernacular and representations of gay community will be familiar to a young audience brought up on Ru Paul’s Drag Race or knowledgeable about the 80s ball culture of New York. Surprising and fascinating then to see the roots of this already entrenched in the 1950s when Williams was writing.
Given the beauty and simplicity of the plays presented, it seems a shame that at times directorial choices interfere with the performances – the use of a microphone instead of a telephone is another example of a decision which feels gimmicky and detracts, rather than adds, to the show, regardless of the good intentions behind it. Although this production is not without its flaws, it remains an exciting opportunity to encounter some of Williams’ lesser known works and is worth watching for Mullins’ performance alone.