Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams. Noel Coward theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N to 28 September. 4****. William Russell

Night of the Iguana
By Tennessee Williams.
Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4AP to 28 September 2019.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 3hr One interval.
TICKETS: 00844 482 5151.
Review: William Russell 16 July.

This powerful production is spoilt by only one thing – for me at least – a hideous set which spills off the stage into the orchestra pit and looks like nowhere on earth. It would not even grace the most provincial of pantomimes. Get that out of the way – although it is difficult to avoid seeing how awkward to use and ugly to look at it is -and Williams’ play of a man distraught, tormented by lust and his failure as a minister, and the two lonely women who see in him someone they could save if only he would let them works a treat. It is admittedly a long haul as the story takes some three hours to tell and act one is pretty hard going because nothing much happens. it is not until act two everything falls into place.
Clive Owen, last seen on stage here 18 years ago, is a rumpled, slightly paunchy, trying not to drink and in the throes of a breakdown minister in disgrace with his church. He is not a defrocked priest, but one who has been suspended and has been working as a tour guide while battling with his demons. He has fallen out with the tour of Baptist ladies he is leading because he has allowed a neurotic teenager into his bed – it is rape as she is under age, although only just. He gives a slow burn of a performance, one which gets more and more effective as the evening wears on.
The tour bus has broken down near an hotel run by old friends, Fred and Maxine, and he is insisting the party stay there for the night much against the wishes of the members. The tour the leader, Judith Fellows, a strident little woman intent on getting him back to town to face the charge of statutory rape. Finty Williams makes the most of a part which is a gift to any character actress. The recently widowed Maxine (Anna Gunn) has coped with Shannon before when he has had nervous breakdowns and would do so again quite happily. She needs a new man in her life other than the Mexican boys who work for her when they feel like it. Gunn is terrific, blowsy, worldly wise and fully aware that life cannot go on as it is for ever.
Also seeking accommodation are Hannah Jelkes ( Lia Williams) and Nonno (Julian Glover), her 97 year old grandfather, a poet on the verge of dementia and struggling to write his last poem. They are on their uppers, which is nothing new. Hannah earns their living by sketching in city squares, painting water colours for tourists. She sees in Shannon someone needing to be saved just as the iguana of the title, captured and imprisoned by the boys, needs to be saved and given its freedom back. Williams, pale, slender, is, beneath the fragile surface, as tough as they come and the battle between her and Maxine to help Shannon is fascinating to watch. She embodies the woman perfectly, backed by a moving performance from Glover by the old man who is hardly there but determined to finish that poem. There is also a party of Germans who are doing the tourist thing, happily convinced in the superiority of the master race who erupt on the scene from time to time. They provide slightly tasteless and not all that necessary comic relief. The Mexican boys are ciphers, there to carry suitcases, run errands and add a little local colour. Maybe the symbolism of that iguana gets laid on with a trowel, and Shannon is hard to feel sorry for, but the play still works.
Williams based it all on a trip he made to Acapulco in 1940 and the result is a powerful play some see as his masterpiece. Not sure that I do, but it is painful, perceptive about failure, the need for love, just surviving against the odds – if you are lucky. For Owen it is an impressive return to the London stage, for the American actress Gunn a fine London debut. But the performance of the night comes from Williams, all bird like fragility and apparent weakness, yet with steel at her core. James Macdonald’s production is, that hideous set apart, a night to remember.
Herr Fahrenkopf: Alasdair Baker.
Wolfgang: Timothy Blore.
Charlotte Goodall: Emma Canning.
Hilda: Karin Carlson.
Pedro: Daniel Chavis.
Jake Latta: Ian Drysdale.
Nonno: Julian Glover.
Maxine Faulk: Anna Gunn.
Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon: Clive Owen.
Pancho: Manuel Pacific.
Hank: Faz Singhateh.
Judith Fellows: Finty Williams.
Hannah Jelkes: Lia Williams.
Frau Fahrenkopf: Penelope Woodman.

Director: James MacDonald.
Set & Costumes: Rae Smith.
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin.
Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim.
Dialect Coach: Nia Lynn.
Fight Directors: Rachel Bown-Williams & Ruth Cooper-Brown.
Production photographs: Brinkhoff/Morgenburg.

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