Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

One for hardcore Tennessee Williams fans only: The Two Character Play reviewed

Plus: one of the cleverest, most successful knock-off jobs you’re ever likely to see at Southwark Playhouse

Clare (Kate O’Flynn) and Felice (Zubin Varla) in Tennessee Williams’s The Two Character Play. Photo © Marc Brenner

It can be difficult to remember that Tennessee Williams, the great songster of the Deep South during the 1950s, was still churning out plays when he died in 1983. In the 1960s he was past his peak and he began to experiment with form, perhaps hoping to compete with fashionable youngsters like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Hampstead Theatre staged the world première of his absurdist melodrama The Two Character Play in 1967. And now, a mere 54 years later (an interlude that hints at its merits as a crowd-pleaser), the show has returned to its cradle. Sam Yates directs.

This is an obscure and sometimes baffling script that features some excellent innovations and ideas. It opens as a backstage drama between a brother and sister, Felice and Clare, who are actors appearing in a ramshackle thriller. The cast and crew have gone missing. Even the script is incomplete. Felice and Clare go ahead with the show despite their fears that disaster looms. Clare tells Felice that when she plays C-sharp on the piano she is indicating her wish to add supplementary material.

Operation Mincemeat is one of the cleverest, most successful knock-off jobs you’re ever likely to see

The action then shifts to the thriller itself which is a classic Williams play. Two siblings are trapped in their Midwest home after their parents were involved in a murder-suicide. They cower in their sitting-room, peeking out through the windows, and imagining that hostile notes are being pushed under the door by angry neighbours. This set-up is funny, dramatic and unpredictable. Clare plays C-sharp on the piano and invents a new speech. But her effort knocks Felice off his stride and so he plays C-sharp as well and improvises his own new material. They compete to reel off chunks of unrehearsed dialogue. At last, Felice shuts the piano lid and sits on it.

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