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Sweet Bird of Youth review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘slow-moving’

Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith in Sweet Bird of Youth at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith in Sweet Bird of Youth at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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Despite starring two leading American actors and being directed by Jonathan Kent, the standout feature of this Tennessee Williams production is Anthony Ward’s set design.

The universal human horror of time hangs over Chichester’s main stage in a billowing white sculptural form. As the protagonists wake in a hotel room to stonking hangovers, it is suspended above them like a tossed bed sheet. As they get back on the drink and drugs, it curls over their heads like a mist of forgetting. Later, it suggests the illusion of purity, the insidious spread of white supremacy, the treacherous train of a premiere gown, a shroud.

Elegant as the set is, there’s something amiss with the action. Last staged at the Old Vic in 2013, Sweet Bird of Youth is one of Williams’ more neglected plays for a reason. His favoured themes of desire and isolation, human manipulation and human kindness, are ripe enough. But the plot is a clumsy melodrama with a bolt-on of 1950s Deep South politics. For a play about the terror of ageing, it doesn’t half make time move slowly.

You can understand what lured Marcia Gay Harden to make her UK stage debut in the role of Alexandra del Lago. A fading Hollywood star fleeing the aftermath of an apparently disastrous premiere, she begins the play groaning pitifully from the hotel bed. But her grandeur and industriousness run deep. There’s a lovely moment when Harden dips a corner of bed sheet into a vodka cocktail to serve as emergency toner, and she enjoys the one-liners. “Well,” Alexandra announces, surveying her lover after retrieving her glasses, “I may have done better but I’ve certainly done worse.”

The young gigolo, prostrate before her in silk pyjamas, is Chance Wayne. He’s played with dyed golden hair and a well-studied range of Southern affectations by Brian J Smith, fresh from John Tiffany’s production of The Glass Menagerie in the West End. Chance has been as corroded by the elusiveness of celebrity as Alexandra has been by its attainment. His only hope of a ‘comeback’ is returning to his hometown to reclaim his childhood sweetheart.

Harden and Smith are better at vulnerability and tenderness than sexual tension and menace. Kent’s staging keeps the audience at arm’s length and it fails to convey the intensity of the pair’s unlikely dependency.

Of the supporting cast, Richard Cordery provides big, bad counter-energy as the white supremacist politician, Boss Finley. But the video screens that descend to televise his rally feel rather like oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling of an aeroplane, in a production that struggles to bring this flawed play to life.

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The pairing of two American stars and some clever design can’t pep up this flawed production