The Night of the Iguana, Noël Coward Theatre (preview)

A long journey into the night as a big name cast fails to imbue relevance to this three-hour-plus production 


“Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally?”

The last line in The Night of Iguana resonated for all the wrong reasons: after over three hours in a broiling hot theatre surrounded by fidgety tourists, I have rarely empathised so much with a character.

Still in previews (which didn’t stop the theatre charging us £30 for seats way in the gods), Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play, features many of his tropes – the weather is an extra character, the tension boiling over as the thunder rolls, there are troubled male character battling demons, enigmatic women who refuse to be tamed and heavy-handed metaphors.

After seeing Noël Coward’s sparkling Present Laughter at The Old Vic last week, The Night of Iguana (currently showing at the Noël Coward theatreseemed like a lumbering beast – as slow and ungainly as the titular lizard, the theatrical heat (or perhaps the very real one in the auditorium) seeming to sap the production of any fire.

The play follows a classic dramatic arch. Set in the 1940s, you get a bunch of mismatched characters in one place – in this case, a cheap hotel near Acapulco, Mexico. Clive Owen plays Shannon, a priest with a penchant for young girls – something which we seem to be asked not to feel too strongly about – who has recently been released from an institution where he was recovering from a “nervous breakdown”.

After being released from his physical internment (but very much still battling to break out of his mental prison), Shannon takes up a position as a tour guide for a second-rate travel firm and brings his current group to this dilapidated establishment run by his friend Maxine (Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn), a recent widow struggling to keep a roof over her and her guests’ heads.

When we meet Shannon he has just been accused of the statuary rape of a sixteen-year-old member of his tour party. But, hey, he carries women’s luggage so he’s not all bad. The women of the group have turned against him because of the small matter of the rape accusation – and are portrayed as nagging, humourless women for being so uptight about this silly little trifle.

In the midst of this, comes watercolour hustler Hannah Jelkes and her elderly grandfather Nonno who, despite having no money to pay their bill, take up residence at the hotel (although Hannah is given a room with a leaking roof by Maxine as a little two-finger gesture).

The central scene is a heavy tête-à-tête between Shannon and Hannah where they excavate their pasts in a merry dialogue dance that could be cheerfully cut to half its length so we could all get home before midnight.

Occasionally the heavy atmosphere is punctured by funny, well-delivered lines, usually from Lia Williams as Hannah. And then there are the Nazis in their swimsuits who every now and again will gallop on stage, laughing at London burning in the Blitz, demanding champagne, before skipping off again to a collective WTF.

Length isn’t a barometer of a good or bad play, of course; I sat completely entranced through the two well-over-three-hour halves of The Inheritance and have stood happily watching Shakespeare’s lengthy histories and tragedies at the Globe.

But this production felt flabby and, well, a bit pointless. What was it about this play that needed to be heard now? Shannon is the kind of man the world is trying to challenge, even eradicate – a sexual predator, an emotionally stunted man who thinks everything and everyone is his for the taking, the women around him either ridiculed or desperate to protect him in case he turns on them.

This production didn’t say anything new about men like Shannon or challenge his worldview. Owen didn’t imbue him with any real depth or give us a hint of something that would provide a glimpse of what was behind his behaviour, so it was difficult to feel anything other than contempt for him – an idiotic child-man who assumed he could do what he likes.

Plaudits to the brilliant set – the thunder and lightning and pouring rain so real I felt like diving under the seats – but, while Williams’ plays are always languid, soaked in sweat and unspoken fears, this metaphorical humidity shouldn’t dampen the drama.

The Night of the Iguana | Noel Coward Theatre | Until September 28 2019

Theatre Review: Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter Theatre; Hay Fever by Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

There are so many parallels between Absent Friends and Hay Fever that there were times watching the latter (I saw it a couple of weeks after AF) that I wondered where the 70s kaftans were. The spirit of Coward is as much a guest at Ayckbourn’s black comedy as the six characters on stage.

Both plays revolve around awkward house parties and revel in the humorous fallout of painful human relationships. They’re both heavy with toe-curling pauses (it’s appropriate that AF played at the Harold Pinter Theatre, named after the king of the pregnant pause) and all-too real foot-in-mouth moments. The results are often hilarious and frequently embarrassing.

AF is set in the brown-tinted 70s as a group of middle class friends come together at on-the-edge Diana (pitch-perfectly played by Katherine Parkinson) and her throw-back chauvinist husband Paul’s house as they gather to show their support over tea and trifle to their supposedly close pal Colin who moved away only tragically lose his fiancé in a drowning accident. The opening awkward scene – heavy with bitterness and paranoia – between the unhappy Diana and the sullen, taciturn mum Evelyn (played with the perfect balance of sympathy and menace by Kara Tointon) who Diana is convinced her husband is having an affair with, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The arrival of Marge and her new shoes only stirs up the drama, and, with it the laughs. Elizabeth Berrington is deliciously funny as the childless mother hen with a knack for putting those ugly wedges in her mouth.

The bubbling despair  – and with it the squirm factor – boils over with the arrival of Colin (Reece Shearsmith) and his photo albums – who, despite his recent trauma, is the only contented character on stage. I found myself laughing to the point of tears at a particularly inappropriate Marge comment before realising I was guffawing at a tragic death and someone’s grief. Feeling conflicted I tried to rearrange my features into a more sombre façade.  An emotional conflict that Ayckbourn would no doubt be happy with.

HF doesn’t throw up the same conundrums. Set in the 1920s during a weekend at an English country house, the laughs are more straightforward, arising from the unpleasantness of the Bliss family and the class clash between the boho hosts and their more conventional weekend guests. Lindsay Duncan has rightly been lauded for her role as Judith Bliss, a former actress whose life remains one long performance. It’s a role that could easily slip into overdramatic campness, but Duncan veers towards underplaying her which only enhances Judith’s melodrama. Under the shadow of such a mother and a boorish, disinterested father (Kevin R McNally) their daughter Sorrell struggles to encourage herself and her self-obsessed family to be more polite and normal. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance is both snortingly funny and rather touching while Freddie Fox as her spoilt brat brother Simon inhabits his role as easily as a 1920s smoking jacket. Jeremy Northam – who I’ve only ever seen doing borderline-gruff –  proves a fine comic actor in his role as fusty diplomat Richard. In fact the only cast member who doesn’t quite fit is the usually brilliant Olivia Coleman who barely stretches her considerable acting chops as glamorous Myra Arundel.  But I think she was the only one in the theatre who was bored at this fizzing adaptation of Coward’s sharply observed script.

by Suzanne Elliott