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Wistful charm makes up for lack of narrative punch in Tennessee Williams revival

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Vieux Carré may not be Tennessee Williams’ greatest play, but this revival at the King’s Head Theatre – the first London performance in 34 years – shows it is well worth seeing for all that.

Full of atmosphere and with some powerful performances, this autobiographical play transports us to the sweltering French quarter of 1930s New Orleans – the Vieux Carré of the title – where a few tenants string out life in various degrees of hunger, sexual humiliation and poverty.

Added to the oppressive heat and seedy rooms are the privations of the landlady, whose cruelty – spitting in a bowl of gumbo before offering it to her starving elderly tenants – stands for a world which couldn’t care less who lives and who dies.

And there is certainly plenty of dying. While our narrator, a writer looking back on his youth, tries his luck at the typewriter, an elderly painter is dying from tuberculosis in the next bed – and occasionally straying from it to provide our man with sexual experiences that are in every way tragic. Next door, a young illustrator and her lover steam the night away before he returns to the strip joint where he works and she waits to see which will do for her first, failure or leukaemia.

If the misery of it all doesn’t overwhelm, it is because the characters are so real and so absorbing. There are some wonderful creations here – and some wonderful performances, in particular Tom Ross-Williams as the young writer and Samantha Coughlan as the woman having one last fling before her health gives out.

The narrator plays his part too, recalling these lives from his past with an affection and pity that are otherwise all too lacking in the world around them.

If the nostalgic device isn’t quite enough to drive things forward, it provides a real, wistful charm that more than makes up for the lack of narrative punch.

* Vieux Carré is at the King’s Head Theatre in Upper Street, N1, until August 4.

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