DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Beyond These Walls – Sheffield Crucible Studio

Reviewer: Richard Ely

Author: Tennessee Williams

Director: Laurie Sansom

As theatres across the land begin to tentatively re-open, it would be easy to think of this seventy-minute programme of Tennessee Williams shorts as a toe-in-the-water exercise, acclimatising audiences to distanced seating and casts that have been rehearsed in ‘bubbles’.  Williams is still better-known for his major dramas, which have held the stage since the middle of the last century, but though he wrote short plays throughout his career, they are rarely performed outside America.

Of the four featured here, three (The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, Talk To Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen and The Case of the Crushed Petunias) date from the early part of his playwriting life, while the fourth (Every Twenty Minutes) was premiered over thirty years after his death; and although each of them demonstrates Williams’ principal virtues as a playwright – a universal sympathy for his characters coupled with the ability to write dialogue that that is as vivid at it is natural – they are only variably  successful in connecting with an audience.

It was a shrewd move on the part of director Laurie Sansom to open the evening with The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, in which a prostitute with pretensions to grandeur has to deal with the twin threats of a cockroach-infested bedsit and an exploitative landlady, while being offered comfort by an alcoholic writer.  One of Williams’ more whimsical pieces, it’s surprising how easily the play travels from its original Deep South setting to Northern Broadsides’ preferred location of Calderdale (at a guess), with a standout central performance from Christine Entwistle as the down on her luck hustler.

Next up is the somewhat ponderous Talk To Me Like the Rain …., in which an impoverished couple, he a drunk, she a dreamer, bemoan their inability to break out of their vicious cycle, with the Woman finding a respite of sorts in dreams.  Though well enough acted by Adrian Nik and Brianna Douglas (who is burdened with one of Williams’ most abstruse monologues), the piece never entirely engages the emotions and the characters remain abstractions rather than people of flesh and blood.  The same might be said of Every Twenty Minutes, a revue sketch (without the requisite number of laughs) in which a High Society couple (Entwistle and Guy Rhys) reflect on their differences over drinks and America’s worrying suicide statistics.

The most successful of the four, The Case of the Crushed Petunias, is reserved for last.  In this, the spinsterish proprietor of a clothes shop (Douglas) has a life-changing encounter with the salesman (for ‘Life, Inc.’) who has been treading over her carefully-maintained petunias.  What might have seemed pretentiously symbolic on the page (the petunias and the pet cage-bird representing the proprietress’s attachment to the staid standbys of an unadventurous existence) becomes an animated light comedy, and Nik’s balletic performance as the imposing salesman is a major asset.

A somewhat mixed evening, then, but with none of the plays exceeding twenty minutes, it’s unlikely audiences will be bored, and the performances are consistently strong.

Runs until 26th June 2021

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