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The Night of the Iguana review at Noel Coward Theatre, London – ‘Lia Williams is magnificent’

Clive Owen and Lia Williams in The Night of the Iguana at Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Written in 1961, Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana was inspired by a rum-fuelled night in 1940 when the playwright was in a low place emotionally. The resulting play, however, is a tale of salvation – a sensuous, humane, if over-baked piece about the hope that people can offer one another.

Reverend T Lawrence Shannon (Clive Owen) is a disgraced minister who, having suffered a nervous breakdown after being charged with statutory rape – or, as he describes it, “being seduced by a woman under 20″ – is scraping a living as a tour guide in Mexico. He winds up in a run-down hotel owned by the recently widowed Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), trailing a mutinous group of tourists who have, not unjustifiably, taken exception to him having his way with one of the youngest girls in the party.

There, he encounters other worldly New England spinster Hannah Jelkes (the exquisite Lia Williams) and her elderly grandfather (Julian Glover), who at 97 is the world’s “oldest still-practicing poet”. They are essentially a pair of elegant hustlers, never settling, moving from hotel to hotel selling poems and watercolours.

Owen – returning to the stage for the first time in 18 years – gives a good account of a man engaged in a battle with himself. He’s forever shifting from foot to foot, like he has pins and needles. He rails against a God he dismisses as a “senile delinquent”, a petulant, crabby old man. He tears at his crucifix as if it might choke him and is given to panicked outbursts.

Gunn (Breaking Bad’s Skyler, making her West End debut) convinces as a woman using grit and swagger to mask her grief. Good as they are, Williams outshines them both and is simply magnificent as the gentle Miss Jelkes. Her performance combines something of both Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey, with the manner of Miss Marple.

Clive Owen and Anna Gunn in The Night of the Iguana at Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

James Macdonald’s atmospheric, fittingly simmering production spends the first half building towards a spectacularly staged, if inevitable, thunderstorm. Rain cascades down Rae Smith’s rugged mountain set, as Neil Austin’s lightning flashes across the rickety cabanas. It’s the slow-burning second half that contains the play’s most emotionally rich moments. The scene in which Williams describes a small, sordid exchange with a masturbatory Australian salesman as if it were one of the most tender encounters of her life is astonishingly moving.

It’s just a shame the play treats Shannon’s habit of molesting teenage girls, and then smacking them around, as no worse a habit than a fondness for the bottle.

The character of Hannah Jelkes is a fascinating one, though, more robust than many of the playwright’s women – strange, sad and graceful at the same time, pleasingly at ease with herself. Williams captures all of this, and more.

Lia Williams: ‘Acting is so fragile – you’re always close to falling off a cliff’

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Lia Williams is magnificent in an atmospheric staging of Tennessee Williams' humane and moving play