Sweet Bird of Youth is one of those productions that makes this Londonista proud to live in London. Knowing that for the rest of the summer, audiences will trip along from Waterloo to the beautiful Old Vic and be totally transported by a top-quality theatre show (beautiful set, zingy script, challenging themes, on-the-money cast) makes us very happy.
That’s not to say Sweet Bird of Youth is Tennessee Williams’ greatest work. Williams spent 15 years attempting to nail the play down; this version by James Graham still contains some clunky mechanics and flashes of melodrama. But there’s plenty of strong Southern Gothic themes to have you chattering in the theatre bar afterwards: fame, blackmail, the loss of youth, adultery, prostitution, castration, venereal disease and a dose of good ol’ fashioned Deep South racism.
If we tell you Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall plays an ageing Hollywood star, who first appears in a hungover fog, waking up next to incredibly fit young gigolo, you’ll probably roll your eyes. To dismiss Cattrall’s performance as a sly piece of typecasting is to do the actress a disservice. Cattrall delivers a masterclass in comic timing, pitch-perfect put-downs and sumptuous stage presence. Her fading celeb, Alexandra del Lago, on the run from a failed come-back film contains just the right amount of irrational whimsy, monstrous self-regard and saccharine sweet manipulation.
She’s well-matched by Broadway star Seth Numrich as Chance Wayne, the past-his-prime-at-29 would-be actor attempting to make his own comeback to his hometown, only to discover things haven’t gone well for his “girl” since he’s been away. Numrich’s playing of Chance reminds us of all the best things about some of Matthew McConaughey’s finest performances: that tantalising mix of misplaced unshakeable self-assurance with a scarily destructive bitter streak.
There are great cameos too, from the spectacularly red-faced Owen Roe as the racist Boss Finley, a Big Daddy by another name, and from Lucy Robinson as Miss Lucy, Finley’s pert hotel-dwelling bit-on-the-side.
Some of director Marianne Elliott’s more theatrical additions (the virginal Heavenly wandering silently through billowing curtains; the thunderstorm cracking loudly over a thuggish gang attack) seemed to simply lengthen the already-long evening, but these are minor complaints. For almost three hours we were captivated by a starry cast and a surprising play. Thank you, Old Vic.