Good and bad at the National. The Amen Corner by James Baldwin is a wryly observed comedy drama written for a studio theatre. It’s an excellent small play. The director Rufus Norris pumps it full of steroids and tries to turn it into a great American epic like Streetcar or The Crucible. His staging suggests the finale of a country-house opera festival. Costly baggage impedes the script’s sprightly flow. On-stage jazzmen snivel through trombones and hack at double basses. Preening choirs warble and sway. Spare actors hang out of windows trying to look cool and indolent. The running time reaches a Napoleonic 155 minutes. Megalomania infects the furniture too. Baldwin asked for two cheap sets, a ramshackle kitchen and a dingy meeting-room. When designers approach the slums they generally go for a) the junk-shop ram-raid, or b) the stylish junk-shop ram-raid. Here we have c) the artless heap of cluttered grubbiness done on a Götterdämmerung budget. Surrounding the pile of crummy garbage looms a great henge of faded neoclassical façades, which look scruffy, oversized and confusing. What happened there? Superman ripped a few chunks out of New York and threw them at Nicholas Hytner. And missed. And yet, through the encrustations of ugliness and bombast, many virtues shine.
The play examines the hypocrisy of human beings and their institutions. Sister Margaret, a charismatic female preacher, is facing accusations of embezzlement from enemies within her evangelical church. At home, her teenage son wants to swap God for the worldly delights of boogie-woogie, sex and dope. Her errant husband, a fading jazz star, has returned to make amends for his long absence.
Margaret and her congregation are steeped in biblical lore. They address each other with courtly titles, ‘Sister’, ‘Brother’, ‘Mother’, ‘Daughter’, and they use ‘Praise the Lord’ as an everyday greeting. Modesty and obedience inform their every word. When they hear that Margaret’s son has been seen smoking a cigarette, and even getting into a car, they reel back in horror. Their piety and self-willed innocence — given that this is 1950s America — are presented without acrimony or accusation.
Baldwin adores these folksy religious freaks and he dissects their self-delusions with a loving and tender hand. His beautifully crafted dialogue is dazzlingly funny, too. The plotters couch their schemes in the rhetoric of saintliness and virtue, and they claim divine authority for every devious manoeuvre. The Spirit of the Lord moves within them even as they do the devil’s work. Religious chicanery has rarely received such a nimble and good-humoured hatchet job.
Great performances, too. Eric Kofi Abrefa catches the brooding nerviness of Margaret’s teenage son perfectly. Jacqueline Boatswain gives a memorable account of affronted snootiness as Sister Boxer, and her amiable duffer of a husband is nicely played by Donovan F. Blackwood. The show’s out-and-out star is Cecilia Noble as a breathy, scheming virgin, whose innocence masks the heart of a born assassin. At the curtain call many leapt up, whooping and cheering. Presented more sparsely, this show might stand a chance of a West End transfer but I can’t see it puffing across the river in this bloated condition.
With its overheated lyricism and monstrous plot twists, Sweet Bird of Youth feels like a parody of Tennessee Williams. Most of his plays include a gin-soaked hysteric desperately staving off insanity with fistfuls of pink pills. Here he has two such basket-cases. Chance Wayne is a washed-up actor returning home to marry his childhood sweetheart. His lover and confidante, ‘the Princess’, is a fading superstar in flight from her latest box-office flop. Booze and pills alone can’t keep her on an even keel. She needs a pouch of hash and an oxygen tank to maintain her equilibrium while the next bottle of Smirnoff is being tracked down and twisted open.
Kim Cattrall is a revelation in this fascinating and monstrous role. Instead of her usual kittenish nympho she gives us an unstable vamp in a frenzied coronet of Shirley MacLaine power hair. Her charisma, her sexual magnetism and her startling vocal firepower dominate the stage. She spares the character nothing and reveals the caustic, fabulous nastiness of a Hollywood legend in full flow. There’s less comedy here than her diehard fans would like but that’s Williams’s fault. He’s aiming for a full-scale Euripidean tragedy with no room for light relief.
He overdoes it in the third act where he strays into the unfamiliar realm of social comment. And he bungs in too many stage effects. A televised political rally is interrupted when a truculent heckler receives a savage beating. Two onlookers watch the attack, rigid with fear, while ‘the Princess’ suffers a hysterical breakdown. And a thunderstorm reaches a Wagnerian pitch of apoplexy. Yes, even the weatherman gets a walk-on part. It may not be Williams’s greatest play but this is an absorbing and draining night out.