Fails to Fly: Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic

Sweet Bird of Youth is centred on a relationship solely crafted to gratify the self-obsessed needs of two lust-ers; the play focuses on the manipulative dalliance between wannabe Hollywood actor and has-been Hollywood actress. Seduced by Chance’s (Seth Numrich) youth and charm, and intoxicated by his arrogance, The Princess Kosmonopolis (Kim Cattrall) stirs from sleep and finds herself smothered betwixt the sheets, blind and bewildered. Popping pills to dull the panic, Princess (aka Alexandra Del Lago) gasps for breath in between Dyson-like gulps over an oxygen pump, and begins to remember the previous night’s not-so-brief encounter.

Self-consumed Chance Wayne has reached an uneasy and wobbly wrung on the social ladder. The twenty-nine year old heads towards the realisation that the bar he’s set for himself is too high and out of reach. The dreams he’s chased are slipping out of grasp. He becomes the essence of unsatisfied ambition. Meanwhile, as Alexandra slowly reaches acceptance that her career, her looks, her soul is fading into yet another burnt-out star, the fates change direction and she’s in for another chance. As the play goes on and the action crescendos, Princess somehow rekindles the flair of her formative years, while Chance’s youthful flame flickers, smoulders, smokes and eventually turns to ashes. 

Ultimately the play is about success, power, fame and beauty, and how these vices or virtues have the ability to stain the soul. Tennessee Williams’ story forces our youth-obsessed culture under the microscope, and cuts like a plastic surgeon into the one-dimensional and material worlds that consume, contort and corrupt lives. 

One can’t fault the acting by the leads: Cattrall and Numrich are tour-de-forces in their own right and their stage presence compels us to follow their every word, gesture and action. We are lured to follow their journey, and we witness a withered woman regain composure while a wayward lad loses his. There’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the pair, but I think that’s on purpose to account for their mechanical and maniacal lust. Much like their lives, their passion is void of meaning.

The supporting cast is generally strong, but clumsy direction results in lost dialogue and fragmented, nonsensical action. One scene in particular is totally distorted by the over-use of various amplifiers – TV screens, megaphones, crowd jeering – to the point where I couldn’t make head or tail of it. The stage combat is sometimes awkward, and there are a few dodgy choreographed fall-overs and faints.

Saying that, there are strong production values. The elaborate set and costumes all look pretty impressive, and the Hollywood casting pot has secured some of the finest talent, but money can’t act as a substitute for imagination and creativity, and because of that it lacks a special something… a certain buzz, a spark, pizzazz.

Perhaps this is due to my personal dislike of the play. The central story line is the most interesting part, but the strength and promise of this very human element is diluted by the padding and fluff that makes up the rest of the three hours.

And while I’m at it: I’m sorry, but 180 minutes is too long. It’s been scientifically proven that the average attention span can only cope with 40 minute bursts. Why force hours upon us when the whole thing could be cut by an hour without sacrificing much of the meaning?

I don’t intend to stand up against Tennessee Williams, but there’s a time and a place for certain themes, and some of the material within Sweet Bird of Youth has lost its freshness and its youth. Either the play’s reached its use-by date, or Marianne Elliott’s production does not support the themes that perhaps deserve more attention. Yes, some of the messages within the piece are ever-relevant and some of the themes are ever-present, but the interwoven political and racial components feel out of place here and superficially and poorly conveyed. I can’t work out whether this is due to the production or the play, but either way Sweet Bird of Youth doesn’t spread its wings and fly.

My interest peaked and troughed but I never really got sucked in; I just kind of bobbed along the surface. It failed to grip and excite me despite Kim Cattrall’s involvement (I’m a fan), and I left the theatre feeling rather uninspired.

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