Review: The Two-Character Play, Jermyn Street

“This still feels like a performance of The Two-Character Play”

So much of Tennessee Williams’ work bears the influence of his relationship with his beloved sister but nowhere is he more nakedly autobiographical than in The Two-Character Play, one of his later, rarely performed works from 1967. Featuring a brother and sister who endlessly re-enact a play about a brother and sister called The Two-Character Play; it is a highly introspective piece of work which is considerably more experimental than fans of his work might be used to, but surreally beautiful and recognisable as Williams.

Clare and Felice are abandoned by their theatre company, stuck in an emptying provincial theatre, yet the play must go on as they struggle to get through the performance, it having particular personal resonance to them. Both physically and emotionally in a no-man’s-land, this pair struggle for resolution yet are terribly scared of it: the portrait of confusion, the slow slide into madness, is all the more moving considering that both Williams and his sister ended up in mental institutions.

After The Early Bird, Catherine Cusack continues to mark herself as deserving of a higher reputation akin to that of her half-sisters with another performance of high intensity: initially strung out on pills, her Clare flits around like a wounded animal with flashes of animation but mostly touchingly fragile no matter what role she is playing. And Paul McEwan’s Felice matches her in the intensity stakes, also riven with insecurities, and an ambiguous note to the character suggesting unexplored depths to this relationship. Both actors have a real ear for Williams’ cadences and the musicality of his writing no matter how impenetrable it threatens to become.

For there are moments where it is all a bit unfocused, there’s a tendency to ramble from Williams which is exacerbated when combined with the tricksy structure of the constant moves in and out of the play-within-the-play. The production lost a little of its drive with the insertion of an interval, the ensuing beginning of the second act didn’t quite re-engage me as much as it should. Given its relatively short running time, I’d’ve run straight through without intermission to maintain the atmosphere.

And it is indeed remarkably atmospheric, with Alice Walkling’s nicely dilapidated set effectively lit by Phil Hewitt who also provides an eerily evocative sound design, transporting us to a no-mans-land maybe in a forgotten corner of the Deep South, but definitely in a deeply personal place for Williams. As a piece of theatre, it is quite enchantingly engaging and better than the majority of ‘little-performed’ works, but as an addition to the Tennessee Williams canon, especially with the Young Vic’s The Glass Menagerie opening imminently, it is beautifully revelatory.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 20th November
Note: some smoking

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