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Orpheus Descending review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘intriguing but flawed’

Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich in Orpheus Descending at Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Tennessee Williams’ 1957 play is an intriguing cocktail of the mythic and gothic, laced with racial ugliness. It is a reworking of an earlier play, Battle of Angels, written in 1940. In his memoirs, Williams referred to the premiere as a disaster: overwritten and under-directed.

He wasn’t wrong on that first count: it’s rough as bathtub moonshine, hot and florid, if sometimes seductive in its excess. It needs a director to, if not tame it, then illuminate it. Tamara Harvey’s production doesn’t quite manage this. It has its moments but never makes a case for the play in the way Rebecca Frecknall did with her version of Summer and Smoke.

Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich) is an itinerant musician who blows into a small Southern town with nothing but his snakeskin jacket and his treasured guitar. He finds a berth at a local store run by Lady (Hattie Morahan), the “daughter of a wop bootlegger”, who was burned to death by a mob of locals for selling liquor to a black man, and her ailing husband, who is clearly not long for this world.

Valentine is the play’s Orpheus figure. He awakens Lady. She sees in him something she wants. She’s a complex character and Morahan’s performance is quite something: brittle, but also clear-eyed. Not only is Lady locked in a toxic marriage, she has an unhappy past that Williams lays out on a plate. Her father died in a horrific manner and she was pregnant once, though circumstances made it intolerable. Morahan captures Lady’s regret, anger, distress and passion, sometimes in a single moment.

Numrich has considerable charm as Valentine, but he’s just a bit too rugged and clean to convince as a drifter. Of the supporting cast, Jemima Rooper’s Carol, the local lush who has been ostracised by the townspeople for showing support for people of colour and for painting her face, for daring to stand out, is particularly intriguing. She’s a damaged, tragic figure, but despite the ripeness of the writing, she feels a bit thin.

Harvey’s staging, though engaging, doesn’t fully capture the sense of menace, unrest and foreboding suggested by the chain-gangs outside and Lady’s husband, thumping with his cane on the floor above.

Valentine Hanson, as Uncle Pleasant, the play’s only black character, reads out Williams’ ornate stage directions, though the action occurs on Jonathan Fensom’s functional 1950s storefront set. It feels like more could be made of this disconnect.

Because this is Williams, the writing contains moments of poetic vibrancy – lines lush and sweet as summer fruit. Nor does the play rose-tint the South. It’s painted as a cauldron of narrow-minded bigots and busybodies, a dangerous place to be an outsider. Harvey’s production makes it possible to glimpse the play’s strengths while also appreciating why it’s not staged all that often.

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Hattie Morahan gives a rich, layered performance in an intriguing but flawed production of Tennessee Williams' rarely performed play