Director of the moment Marianne Elliott, whose production of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time won seven Olivier Awards earlier this year, transports the Old Vic to the Deep South for Tennessee Williams’ tortured Sweet Bird Of Youth, a cutting insight into 1950s society and life in the glare of an unforgiving Hollywood.
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich lead the drama as a pair of egotistical lost souls at polar opposites of youth. Cattrall, as the grandly named once-legendary actress Princess Kosmonopolis, is holed up in hiding with a pool boy she can’t remember picking up following a failed comeback where the cruelty of the big screen close-up leaves her humiliated and mocked, while Numrich, as the chiselled wannabe star Chance Wayne, is a picture of perfect youth, affectingly beautiful, but ruthlessly ambitious with a cocksure swagger and an unfeeling air of unrepentant cruelty.
Both have what the other want. While an anxiety-ridden Kosmonopolis allows herself to be won over by even the most false show of tenderness, Wayne is willing to sell himself for any flicker of hope of success. But, as Kosmonopolis declares, this is a case of monster meets monster and, living off a diet of pills and liquor, their matching ability to patronise and demean one another are rallied back and forth in a humiliating power struggle that plays off against a small-town backdrop where brutality rumbles beneath the surface, threatening to spill over at any point.
Elliott’s atmospheric production is stylish in every sense. Rae Smith’s opulent set is brought to life by Bruno Poet’s heady, streaming lighting and the cast’s decadent costumes, which, with their slim-cut suits, full-skirted prom dresses and ostentatious sunglasses, create a fitting setting for a Peroni advert.
Engaging as this elegant vision is, the stylish coating also serves to make it all the more effective when the bigoted community descends into grotesque violence and characters’ public facades are cast off. When Wayne’s childhood sweetheart Heavenly finally appears she is an ethereal but desperately fragile beauty in a cut-out, girlish dress, completely at odds with Kosmonopolis’ sophisticated, heavily made-up facade that unsuccessfully masks a broken woman whose snapped thick-rimmed glasses, half-done up dress and rolled down stockings taint her movie star elegance.
Cattrall excels as the washed-up star in an unselfconscious performance that has more than a little of the Marilyn Monroe about it, her voice breathy and childish with need before switching to a deeper demanding roar when the clouds of her fragility clear to make way for the return of a manipulative diva. But it is Numrich who arguably steals the show, with a relentlessly determined performance as a thoroughly unlikable narcissist struggling to keep control and win back his golden boy crown in a community that has long since given up caring.
Building to a brutal climax, Williams’ play is an unflinching portrayal of the dangers of vanity and leaves the audience with the suggestion of the darkest of repercussions as, like Kosmonopolis predicts, one monster wins and the other is forced to give way.