REVIEW: Confessional, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭

Last Updated on 17th June 2017

Book tickets for Confessional at Southwark Playhouse
Audience, Audience, Lizzie Stanton, Jack Archer, Tim Harker, Audience. Photo: Simon Annand

Southwark Playhouse
7 October 2016
4 Stars
Book Tickets

A premiere of a Tennessee Williams play is a rare event, and even more wonderful when it takes places in the Little space of the Elephant and Castle’s answer to the National Theatre. For this production, the audience, sit in amongst the ‘pub themed’ staging, democratically arrayed on chairs at polished wooden tables, free to help ourselves to drinks from the bar, or wander in and out at will, as we settled down to become immersed in this extraordinary creation. Williams, a great experimenter, in this 1970 first draft of a play he never developed further, gathers together his usual company of social outcasts and misfits, pitting them against each other – and us – in a sequence of arguments and introspective monologues over the course of a typical evening in an ordinary bar. He would love this brilliantly sympathetic and imaginative production by Jack Silver, who continues to make his meteoric way up the scale of our estimation with his apparently boundless talents: Silver takes Williams’ American milieu and shifts it deftly – without changing a single word of the text – into the seedy, East-End-by-the-seaside, down-at-heel and take-us-as-you-find-us ambience of Southend-on-sea.

Williams’ typical way of working, as described over and again by Gore Vidal, was to take an idea, muse over it in a short story, then – if he felt so inclined – create a one-act to see how it played on the stage; should all go well there he would expand it into a full-length drama, putting the work through as many drafts as it took to realise his artistic vision into the most definite form he could induce it to attain. This script, spoken in the bright Essex accents of the locals and smarter RP or more distantly originated brogues of people on the run from indiscretions or problems elsewhere, is taken from somewhere along this conveyor-belt of literary creation: far more than a string of short stories, a generous 90 minutes of a one-act drama pushing the boundaries of what can be contained within the scope of the single action, the script seems to balance tentatively between the shorter form and a situation that yearns to find more complex and fully elaborated expression.

Book tickets for Confessional at Southwark Playhouse
Abi McLoughlin and Raymond Bethley in Confessional. Photo: Simon Annand

Nowhere is this more expressly illustrated than in the central character of Leona Dawson (Lizzie Stanton), who merges the functions of a narrator and whose gregarious personality restlessly unifies the separate narratives brought into the room by each of the other personalities who gather there. She, more than the others, has the ear of the audience, as well as all her other interlocutors, and she it is who seems to suggest the possibility of a through-line of a ‘story’. And yet, does not. The imputation of recognisable, traditional dramatic narrative is often raised, and just as frequently – not least by our Leona – dashed.

This habit of suggesting action, and then defeating its impetus is also detected in the rest of the players: the roaming chef, Bill McCorkle (Gavin Brocker); the lazily sensuous and also possibly dangerous Steve (Rob Ostlere); the fractured, semi-crazed Violet (Simone Somers-Yeates); the usually taciturn but always observant proprietor Monk (Raymond Bethley); the strangely inappropriately urban screenre-writer Quentin (Tim Harker), and his newfound youthful object of interest Bobby (Jack Archer); the struck-off alcoholic Doc (Abi McLoughlin); and even the bit parts of the doorman and cop Tony (both played by Alex Kiffin). All of these characters are torn between trying to interact with each other, and then purposefully plunging themselves into often starkly isolated monologues, much in the manner of the slightly later ‘Kennedy’s Children’. No one could ever accuse Tennessee Williams of not trying to blaze the trail of the new.

Book tickets for Confessional at Southwark Playhouse
Rob Ostlere and Simone Somers-Yeates in Confessional. Photo Simon Annand

Gradually, the realisation dawns that what we are experiencing here, despite the impeccably realistic staging (wonderfully put together by Justin Williams – assisted by Jonny Rust, and lit with perfect verisimilitude by Jack Weir – and I would love to know who did the sound: including a jukebox that plays – I think – a Joshua Bell violin bon-bon), is a long way from reality. In fact, Williams seems to be making something akin to what Siodmak did in the 1920s with his silent ‘film without a plot’, ‘People on Sunday’ (subsequently remade in sound – but also monochrome – by Fassbinder). Characters are presented, they speak, they do minor, everyday, ordinary things (relative to their particular callings in life, that is – the Doc’s world is extremely different from that of the manicurist), and then they depart. And that’s that. Some people may find that infuriating, but it is setting out to do nothing more. People come and go, dressed flawlessly by Katy Clark, and in magnificently energised movements: it turns out later, when you are presented with a copy of the programme on leaving the auditorium, that Silver has decided to invent a new style of acting here, where there is no blocking or specific direction given – all decisions of that kind are made by the cast on the spur of the moment. Since many of their actions and responses are predicated by where and how the audience decides to seat itself or move, there is a lot of practical sense in this approach. However, some of the speeches are very long and complex, and possibly this approach is too unstable at times, especially for actors at a comparatively early stage of their careers: that may well change with a few more performances under their belts. Yet, there is always a powerful sense of danger, which permeates everything that we see and hear, and adds to the sense of drama, in ways that are as unfamiliar as they are hauntingly unsettling. That’s very Tennessee Williams.

Book tickets for Confessional at Southwark Playhouse
Simone Somers-Yeates, Raymond Bethlet, Lizzie Stanton and audience member. Photo: Simon Annand

So, I guess you could say I liked it. Whether you will or not, I really don’t know. I suppose you’re not going to see a lot of other theatre like this-this year. Give it a punt. What’s the worst that can happen? You might just see a lot of yourself in these people, in their conflicts and disagreements, their loves and hopes and disappointments. You might wish that Tennessee had got around to giving it another going over, drawing more sense out of its disparate contents. You might even prefer a different style of performance where there is more tidiness and order. But this company, Tramp, produced by Remy Blumenfeld – assisted by Tommy Rowlands, since launching at Edinburgh two years ago with an initial run of this show, have decided to do something different, and this is their first project: if this is the level at which they now are, who knows what more magic may lie ahead!

Until 29 October 2016


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