Tennessee Williams was a dramatic big hitter, with regular revivals of his major plays including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Glass Menagerie and Night of the Iguana (which is currently running in the West End).
Southern Belles collates two of his lesser-known one-act plays, chosen to kickstart the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season. At 35 and 45 minutes respectively these are little precious nuggets, studies of love and loneliness.
The duo of plays opens with Something Unspoken, in which society lesbian Cordelia (a regally poised Annabel Leventon) co-habits in an uncomfortable existence with her mousy companion and secretary of some years, Grace (Fiona Marr).
Cordelia seeks both the approval of her peers in local office, and the affection of the woman she loves so dearly she fills her room with roses, one for each year of their shared friendship.
Unspoken, of course, and unwanted by Grace, a widow who is so awed by her employer she compares their shades of grey – Cordelia like the Emperor Tiberius with her strength, Grace like a cobweb or something white that is soiled.
Leventon and Marr make the most of material which appears thin at first, but begins to show hidden depths as the play progresses. In the end, it is only in notes of music and petals of a rose that the ladies can truly communicate, with the pain in their eyes sadly evident.
After the interval it is the turn of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, ignored and unproduced in Williams’ lifetime, and proving to be an astonishing and brutally honest study of unrequited gay love.
Candy (Luke Mullins) has picked up Karl (George Fletcher), a sailor, in a known gay bar. Candy is effeminate, trusting, loving, and naive, while Karl is full of self-loathing of himself and the weakness he shrugs off by abusing Candy mentally and physically.
Mullins’s performance as the play progresses and Candy’s drag sweetness descends into a desperation to be noticed no matter what the cost is a revelation, and certainly one of the best I have seen this year.
Whether describing his collection of negligees (“all rainbow colours”), reading a poem about “queens and misfits”, clinging to the fiction of his perfect “marriage” with the married man who seduced and mentored him, then left for “a new chick”, or playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the quietly violent Karl, Mullins makes Candy a towering, tragic figure.
Where Something Unspoken deals with gay love in a somewhat genteel way, Queens is brutal and devastating, even more so when you realise it was written in 1955. These are real characterisations in all their rawness.
Cordelia and Candy are both cut from the same cloth – both predatory, a bit sad, a bit lost. It is clear why director Jamie Armitage has chosen to revive them as a pair, and quite right that Queens runs last.
The use of music is also interesting, with Ben Chinapen’s ethereal vocals introducing each play with carefully curated pieces by Noel Coward and Harry Warren.
Southern Belles continues at the King’s Head until 24 August.