While Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s time at the Cock Tavern may be remembered for a surprise Olivier Award win (for OperaUpClose’s La bohème), his greatest legacy may become a particularly well-judged programme of pocket works by playwrights known and unknown.
Following last year’s fascinating Edward Bond series, this mini-season of Tennessee Williams one-acters has proved equally fruitful. The recent run of I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays and now A Cavalier for Milady (both here receiving their world premieres) showcase these late playlets as contrasting gems by a master of dialogue and personal soul-baring.
There’s something bonkers about A Cavalier for Milady, an inappropriate term considering the seriousness underlying the scenario of madness cradled by dysfunction.
Nance is a fragile young woman not a million miles away from Williams’ own sister Rose, whose mother forced her to undergo a lobotomy at the age of 34. Williams never shied away from this most painful part of his life, exploring the situation in numerous plays, most notably The Glass Menagerie and Suddenly Last Summer.
This piece, dating from his twilight years, seems to be a final working out of his feelings of guilt and despair at his beloved sister’s plight. Nance inhabits a world of mad battle-axes and sexual frustration, while her mother and fellow widow Mrs Aid live in an alcohol-fuelled “fantasy of the libido,” diving into the bushes with young hired studs (the title of the play is the name of a gigolo agency). Nance’s mesmerised escape is into a mirage of ideal manhood, peopled by apparitions of Valentino and Nijinsky.
Caitlin Thorburn’s woman-child is touchingly earnest in her eroto-spiritual yearning, and Janet Prince and Lucinda Curtis are wonderfully dotty as the older women, turning disturbingly nasty when their twisted sense of decorum is crossed. Even funnier is Gillian Hanna’s barking Irish trout of a babysitter, unable to handle her charge and deserting her duties when the girl’s behaviour turns more and more erratic (and erotic). Sam Marks is an elegantly beautiful Nijinsky, the unattainable target of the girl’s imagination, giving us a pretty fair account of the Russian dancer’s self-choreographed angular faun.
Director Gene David Kirk sculpts it all wonderfully and Cherry Truluck’s smart, stylish box-set design sees the Cock’s production values on the up and up. Williams treads well-trodden ground thematically but, with his usual heart-wrenchingly honest self-exploration, presents us with an unusual and not altogether comfortable hour of anguished humour. The final poignant image sends us rolling back to earlier incarnations of his sister’s story.
The Cock’s salute to this great playwright in his centenary year may have been brief but it’s been memorable in the unearthing of two rarities while the rest of British theatre seems to be ignoring the occasion.
Read the Exeunt interview with Gene David Kirk on directing Tennessee Williams.