Southern Belles (King’s Head Theatre)

Southern Belles (King’s Head Theatre, until August 24th)

As if sitting in a small pub theatre on a hot summer evening wasn’t enough, the temperature soars in the southern heat and passion of a Tennessee Williams double bill staged as part of the King’s Head Theatre Queer Season.

The two one-act plays haven’t been performed together before and one is rarely seen, having never been staged during the lifetime of the playwright owing to its subject matter. The combination of Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens makes for a simply sizzling evening under the title Southern Belles.

Both plays have the heartbreak of loneliness at their core yet, despite the sadness and tragedy Williams injects with such devastating understanding common to both, there is also a real sense of the possibility of hope buried in this strong production. Yet we are never allowed to forget the desolating effect of people struggling with feelings that have to be hidden from society.

Director Jamie Armitage cleverly discovers every aspect of the isolation and feelings of worthlessness and how the objects of affection can sometimes prove to be a cruel disappointment. He finds humour in the heartache during an evening that sends the audience out gasping for breath. He also draws every ounce of drama from two short plays that, if seen alone, could all too easily be dismissed as lightweight.

First up is Something Unspoken, originally written in 1958 and performed then alongside another one-act play Suddenly, Last Summer. It is certainly the slighter of the two on offer, mostly meandering along as slowly as the Red River during a heatwave, but there is definitely much to savour. Williams is often poetic in his writing here and the production itself seems to have a floating quality entirely fitting for the language and characters.

The central person in this vignette is a wealthy Southern states spinster, Cornelia Scott, eager to win approval in social as well as personal life. Played effortlessly by a blistering Annabel Leventon, this is a grande dame Southern belle who has her sights fixed on becoming regent of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Louisiana, having held every other office in the organisation, but only on her own terms as campaigning is beneath her dignity. Such is her fear of rejection that she cannot even bring herself to attend the elections evening, relying on a friend at the end of a telephone (an odd use of a modern hand-held microphone in an otherwise beautifully designed flowing white satin pink-lit 1940s set by Sarah Mercadé) to keep her informed.

That fear of rejection is also at the centre of the relationship she has with her secretary and companion of 15 years, Grace, a beautifully nuanced performance by Fiona Marr, refusing to acknowledge an emotion never overtly proclaimed though more than hinted at in their co-dependent association. Leventon captures both the strength and vulnerability of this complex creation, trying to break down the tension of things left unsaid. There is a beautiful moment where Cornelia presents Grace with 15 roses – one for each year they have been companions – which tries to put into words the unspoken feelings, but even this seems an ephemeral token when honesty would express much more.

Though slight, tiptoeing rather than striding through its theme, it is never superficial and both performers grasp the importance of playing roles which are as much about what is unwritten as the speeches delivered.

Far more substantial is the second play, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, which plucks the heartstrings not least because of an incredible and unmissable award-worthy central performance. First seen a year ago at the venue, this emotional heavyweight of a play is now superbly matched with Something Unspoken to create an evening of passion and emotional tension.

Luke Mullins perfectly and delicately inhabits the part of Candy, the transvestite interior decorator whose desire for love leads to living dangerously on the streets and in the bars of 1950s New Orleans. This is a loneliness bordering closely on self-loathing and carelessness and perhaps even madness, as he sees no point of life beyond his upcoming birthday. Unusually the object of his affection on this particular evening is the tough, manipulative, straight and unyielding merchant seaman Karl (George Fletcher, a dark, brutal and brooding presence) who has more materialistic ideas on his mind than to be seduced.

In the performances there is more than a hint of the characters of Blanche and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, an uncompromising relationship in a drama that had no difficulty being staged in the author’s lifetime. With And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens we see tender sensitivity confronting ruthless pugnacity with an uncomfortable sense of inevitablity hanging over the stage.

Mullins is a sensation as the tortured, tender Southern belle left lost and lonely when his ‘husband’ runs off with “another woman.” He captures the character’s fragility, a flawed, vulnerable and sensitive eccentric who is, like the play itself, ahead of her time but who cannot face the downward spiral into loveless middle age.

Property owner Candy rents out the upstairs “slave quarters” of her home to Alvin and Jerry (sweetly played by Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen ), two younger gay boys who increasingly frustrate Candy and stir up her growing self-loathing, but also offer sanctuary and support when needed most. Armitage has the boys sitting on stage throughout the play (and providing musical intyerjections throughout the evening): are they merely observers of a tragic situation or are they the only means of salvation in a hostile society?

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Williams, who penned such enormous works of epic dramatic intensity as The Glass Menagerie,  A Streetcar Named Desire,  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth and The Night of the Iguana, could also have written such punchy shorter works, which are too often overlooked yet are well-deserving of exploration and examination. It is shocking to think that stories told over 60 years ago could still have such disquieting resonance today.

At the King’s Head this Queer Season opener proves the value of two such titles in a crackling evening of stimulating drama.

David Guest

Image, Scott Rylander

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub