Review: Confessional, Southwark Playhouse

“I know from experience that I’ll find somebody and locate a nightspot to booze in and get acquainted with…friends”

I can’t deny it, when I first heard the staging for Tennessee Williams’ Confessional was ‘semi-immersive’, I rolled my eyes for it has become a much-abused term by arts marketeers. But on arriving at Southwark Playhouse, being encouraged to go into the Little straightaway and thus experiencing Justin Williams’ design, I was blown away. For the theatre has been transformed into a working bar, Monk’s Place, complete with pork scratchings and the kind of seating found in any traditional pub.

The pre-show entertainment sets the mood perfectly, actors milling round making the kind of small talk you might call banter, for that is so much of the essence of the play. Eschewing conventional dramatic structure, Confessional is less about plot than about people. Specifically, the punters of this seaside boozer as they count down the minutes to closing time, sharing stories with us, arguing the toss with each other, trying – and failing – to come to terms with the cards life has dealt them.

Jack Silver’s production for Tramp transplants the play wholesale to contemporary Southend-on-Sea and though some are wary of ever changing Williams’ original context (qv the recent A Streetcar Named Desire), it can sometimes seem counter-productive to impose too much literalism on his writing. For its poetry and symbolism can be timeless when allowed, the existential angst of these characters all the more affecting when not tethered to too much extraneous detail, whether in 1950s SoCal or 2010s SoS. 

For me, this is most evident in Lizzie Stanton’s blistering performance as Leona (a mobile home-dwelling beautician, there’s those details…) whose elemental rage is as close to a central figure as we get. Mourning the anniversary of the death of her brother, picking fights with all and sundry, hers is a fierce flame that dares you to look away as she prowls the bar. Gavin Brocker’s cocky Bill and Rob Ostlere’s sly Steve also stand out, as does the melancholy of landlord Monk, a beautifully understated Raymond Bethley.

Confessional may not rank amongst the greatest of Tennessee Williams’ writings but the nature of this production – the actors are allowed to improvise with the staging from night to night, to reflect the different audiences – makes a strong case for nipping along to Monk’s Place for the night. The only thing that would have made it better is if they had Scampi Fries behind the bar too.

Running time: 85 minutes (without interval) 
Photo: Simon Annand

Booking until 29th October

Slightly misleading promo image: Henryk Hetflaisz

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