Within the space of a week I've had two obscure Tennessee Williams plays to see: Last Tuesday it was one of his very last plays, today one of his very first. However Spring Storm was not discovered until the 1990s - written while he was a student, it was derided by his playwrighting tutor so Williams ditched it. The Royal and Derngate Northampton's production, revived by the National, is the first ever outside the US, and if this is anything to go by, it's a stroke of good luck that a manuscript of the play was eventually found in a University archive.
The programme encourages us to see this as a precursor to the playwright's later great works, and it does work in that way (if Blanche DuBois is the ultimate faded Southern belle, Heavenly Critchfield is the belle who fades before our very eyes) but I found that it works perfectly well on its own terms. Heavenly (Liz White from Life on Mars) is happy enough with her boyfriend Dick (Michael Thomson) and plans to marry him, even if her mother thinks he's beneath her. But when millionnaire's son Arthur (Michael Malarkey) returns to town with his own designs on her, despite her apparent dislike of him she's genuinely torn. Both Williams' writing and White's performance manage a very delicate balancing act with Heavenly: The way she treats both suitors is pretty appalling, but as a sexually active unmarried woman in a repressed society, she becomes a tragic figure, damned by the fact that everyone around her has tried to repress her sexuality. I'd also been looking forward to seeing Jacqueline King on stage (she played Donna's mum in Doctor Who) and she didn't disappoint. As Heavenly's class-obsessed mother she provides much of the humour, and has a great scene where she nervously keeps up an endless, fast-paced monologue to try and keep Arthur distracted. Joanna Bacon's Aunt Lila is another highlight on the humorous side, which despite the play's structure as a tragedy, is a side we still see a lot of.
Laurie Sansom's production has an unusually dreamlike quality, especially in the first and last scenes, helped by Jon Nicholls' music and especially Sara Perks' set: Taking her cue from the real-life flooding of the Mississippi which would have been on Williams' mind when he wrote the play, Perks gives us a set constructed of rubble, a collapsed house's roof serving as a hill at the start, with tatty books and furniture strewn around which are then gruffly moved into place by the cast to make up the other locations. Interestingly, despite the two plays' differences, this production used the same conceit as The Notebook of Trigorin, namely to have the detailed stage directions read out over the start of scenes. This does lead to a funny moment the playwright presumably didn't intend, as he says the look of Heavenly's living room can be left to the designer's discretion, then proceeds to describe what he wants in minute detail. Overall there's very little about this that isn't spot-on, the production makes it hard to believe this isn't one of Williams' better known plays.
Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 22nd of July at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.