Review: Sweet Bird of Youth, Chichester Festival Theatre

“‘I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding”

There’s something a little depressingly predictable about my inability to resist a neat bit of star casting – Marcia Gay Harden’s long-in-the-making UK theatrical debut being the guilty party here. It’s depressing because Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a play I wasn’t much of a fan of the one time I saw it before and the heart wasn’t beating any faster at the prospect of sitting through it once again.

And maybe there’s an element of self-defeating prophecy at work because I was bored rigid by Jonathan Kent’s production here for Chichester Festival Theatre. A quiet audience (never seen the upper seats curtained off like that before) sweltered in the stifling atmosphere but sadly, there was no heat being generated on the stage of Anthony Ward’s distractingly-conceived design.

Harden plays Alexandra del Lago, a fading Hollywood legend whose attempted comeback has ended in ignominy at, has fled the premiere of a movie on which all her hopes were pinned and as one is liable to do, she picks up Chance Wayne, a handsome (younger) gigolo – Sense8’s Brian J Smith – who takes her to the Gulf of Mexico town of his birth. She wants to hide but he wants to fix the mistakes of his past, also vainly chasing a lost youth.

She is excellent, as befits a career that has seen her win Tonys and Oscars, but Chance is an entirely thankless part and Smith struggles to convert any of the surface passion that he shows into any kind of emotional depth. It thus makes the play hard-going over its lengthy running time and Williams’ cast of supporting characters are equally thinly drawn, making this a far from essential play, receiving a decent production but not one I could recommend travelling from London for.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 24th June

(c) Johan Persson

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