REVIEW: Sweet Bird of Youth at Chichester Festival Theatre

Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith. Photo by Johan Persson
Marcia Gay Harden and Brian J Smith. Photo by Johan Persson
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Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre, until June 24

How many of us yearn to return to some place or person from our past and rediscover that which we have lost?

It is invariably a journey that leads to both disappointment and to facing some uncompromising truths.

Chance Wayne makes such a return to St Cloud on the Gulf of Mexico determined to track down the once love of his life Heavenly Finley.

But Heavenly is a shadow of her former self.

Destroyed by Finch himself from a sexually transmitted disease he infected her with and which resulted in an hysterectomy.

Chance is warned repeatedly that if he stays, the girl’s powerful father will exact a similar price – castration. He needs to leave at once.

The passing years and fading good looks have already relegated Chance to category of loser. A man who survives as a gigolo – and is currently funding himself from equally faded film star the Princess Kosmonopolis.

If Tennessee Williams’ plot seems unremittingly bleak and brutal in script this latest production does nothing to lighten the mood or imbue the characters with any sense of likability.

In the closing moments as he faces up to the consequences of his past, Chance turns to the audience and makes a plea for some acknowledgement of his plight and some empathy. It is all too late for that.

True Brian J Smith delivers a passionately honest interpretation of Chance, despite the unavoidable handicap of being far too good-looking and charismatic for the role.

Marcia Gay Harden brims with fragile movie-star ego and self-adoration.

It is a terrific casting combination.

Chichester always stages with panache. The 1950s timeframe is captured beautifully in a set that is as sleek as it is simple.

But this is a play that would sit more comfortably in the adjoining Minerva studio – where the intimacy of the stage would amplify the remorseless focus on the fragility of the characters.

In the main house, the theatre itself dwarfs the production.

The first half sets the scene with too little pace and while the second gathers that pace the outlook darkens and there is a danger that audiences will leave unmoved and untouched by the undoubted quality that underpins so much.

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