Magazine article The Spectator

Bruised Angel

Magazine article The Spectator

Bruised Angel

Article excerpt

Baby Doll

(National)

Helpless

(Donar Warehouse)

The turn of this century is proving an amazingly rich time for the National Theatre to prospect for gold down in old Tennessee. After Vanessa and Corin Redgrave's breathtaking rediscovery of Not About Nightingales, the long-lost first major Tennessee Williams script at the Cottesloe, we now have on the Lyttelton stage something equally enthralling: the first-ever staging of his 1956 screenplay Baby Doll.

This was the Carroll Baker/Karl Malden/Eli Wallach movie which carried the proud boast 'Banned by Cardinal Spellman' on just about the last occasion that the Catholic Church forgot how its bans have a habit of misfiring. What is fascinating about the new Lucy Bailey production, into the National from the Birmingham Rep, is the way in which she has managed to take an often sketchy and fragmentary screenplay and turn it into a drama of real substance, able now to stand alongside the best of Williams's plays.

Bunny Christie's set has a brilliant, dolls'-house quality, with individual rooms opening up in darkness to give you the sense that you are peering into them; and in one of them of course is the child bride, Baby Doll herself, the character who gave her name to millions of knee-length nightdresses. As played by Charlotte Emmerson, she no longer comes across as the Lolita of the Deep South, but instead as another of Williams's bruised angels forever hoping, like Blanche duBois, to depend on the kindness of strangers.

In this case the stranger is Silva Vaccaro, broodingly well played by yet another comparative newcomer, Jonathan Cake; but his interest goes beyond the sexual. He needs Baby Doll to sign a statement proving the criminality of her husband (Paul Brennen), who, in the third great performance of the evening, has agreed not to sleep with his bride until their repossessed furniture has been reclaimed. At times this is almost a parody of the world of Tennessee Williams; yet so hauntingly is it played, on a set which also manages to feature a rusting Chevy and great bales of cotton as high as the eye can see, that by the end you are totally caught up in yet another sweaty saga of the sweet bird of youth being brutally awoken to a world of rape and revenge.

At a time when all too few playwrights are prepared to tackle the way we live now in any political or national sense, it is really good to have Dusty Hughes back. …

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