Tennessee William's Spring Storm (National Theatre 13/4/10) 18 April 2010

Breaking News! Tennessee Williams long forgotten play Spring Storm, on its first trip outside of the US has been involved in a serious head on collision. Miraculously, or predictably, it has emerged - unscathed.

This is a great testimony to the genius of Tennessee Williams. Here we have a play that few have seen and even fewer are even familiar with, in a production that if it were a lesser playwright, would have been dismissed as a potential flash in the pan. That's not to say that Spring Storm is a masterwork, I don't think it is, but there's enough of what Tennessee Williams does best to rise above, even the most lazy and uninspired of productions.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm when he was in his 20's, it was never produced. Interestingly enough it was written in 1937, the same year he wrote The Fugitive Kind (the precursor to Orpheus Descending) and then a year later Not About Nightingales. The play was found amongst The Tennessee Williams Collection in Texas and received it's first public reading in New York in 1996 followed by publication.

This production currently at the National's Cottesloe Theatre is Royal & Derngate Northampton's transfer of two seminal American playwright's early work - the Young America Season. Spring Storm is paired with Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon which admittedly I know nothing about with the exception that it, like Spring Storm, was an early work.

Let's look at the foundation. Tennessee Williams was an amazing playwright. His style immediately puts the viewer into a zone, the Tennessee zone. The plays are witty, clever, heartbreaking with astoundingly good dialogue and often tackled complex issues. All those points are present in Spring Storm, but make no mistake, it's not one of his best and it's pretty clear that it's an early work. Some of the elements don't come together. Some of the themes and characters he was exploring aren't fully explored - I got the sense that he wasn't really sure of some of the characters himself.

Here's the story, Spring 1937 in Mississippi. A young woman from a good family, Heavenly has to choose between local tradesman Dick Miles, a man below her social class, and the son of the towns wealthy family Arthur (who is Heavenly's mother choice for a suitor). There's also the dowdy 30 year old library assistant Hertha who also has a dream of finding something better as does Dick. Just from those descriptions I'm sure you can weave a story of how these characters might interact and for the most part that's where Tennessee Williams takes the audience. What makes it less obvious are the twists he throws in that make these relations much more complex, mostly to do with Heavenly's character.

Heavenly is a conflicted character, she wants to be with Dick, makes it clear to her Mother that Arthur is not for her, yet in his presence she shows interest in him. Because she's had 'relations' with Dick she has become the talk of the town. It doesn't help that she drinks, smokes, really enjoys that new product called Coca Cola and is not embarrassed about any of it. Arthur also seems to be conflicted, he wants to be with Heavenly or so it would seem, but makes a play for Hertha early on. Dick is more straightforward, he just wants to get out of the town and is hoping Heavenly would join him but will leave regardless. All very complex, emotional conflicts are poised to run high, however, what I have just retold I got from hearing the words, not from the individual performances.

For me, the performances were pretty much way off the mark. Here are a few examples. The opening scene has Dick looking down at the Mississippi River, equating it with his need to leave town and experience another place. As far as I could tell, the actor was looking at the ground and just saying the words. I never got the sense there was a river there. Tennessee's words did all the work. A few scenes later Arthur is talking to Hertha. He is retelling a story that could be construed as a pick up line of sorts, which Hertha asks about and takes his word that it was not. Later in the play, a drunk Arthur confronts Hertha at the Library. He overpowers her and she struggles then gives in. It's a violent scene where the overtones are rape. So, why does she give in? She gave absolutely no indication of having any feelings for Arthur. She would have if the actress had played the earlier scene differently.

Here's a good one. I'm going to set up a scenario - now think of what you would do in the same situation. It's late at night and you are awakened by sounds of conversation in another room. You go down the hall to investigate and turn into the room where you thought you heard the voices. You enter, see a family member and ask who they were talking to? Out of curiosity, your natural instinct would be to look at the various doors in the room to see if you saw anyone, right? Same scenario in Spring Storm. What does the actor asking the question do? Look behind him, at the door he just entered through. That really stood out to me - I thought 'you just came through that door, you know no one's there because you were just there yourself, so why look back to investigate?' It reeked of acting school scene work.

Finally the big laugh of the night came from the woman playing Heavenly's mother. She has a scene where she is trying to impress the wealthy Arthur and it turns into (for all of you familiar with this British TV show) Keeping Up Appearances fused with some Noel Coward comedy. The audience roared. I wept.

I wondered if there was any preparation made regarding Southern lifestyles, locales and accents (on the latter - there is a dialect coach listed but I fear much of the instruction fell on deaf ears.) I never got the sense of location, era or society. The performances were mannered in that acting school sort of way and universally, there were no real connections to the imagery they were describing (which Tennessee is so famous for) or the other characters.

I sat in the Cottesloe and tried to figure out what the problem was. Was it the actors or the director? As I tried to unravel the problem (also a bad sign that I was going through such a lengthy thought process during a show) and came to the conclusion it must be the director as it would be near impossible to find such uniformly poor performances in the same production. Then I realised that I didn't like anything about the production (my friend liked the shoes). I wondered if it was intentional to not have anything ring true or logical.

Director Laurie Sansom - also Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate Southampton, has included voiceovers (by a voice assumed to resemble Tennessee's) of the stage directions and scene introductions at the start of most scenes and most irritatingly, at the end where we hear - 'end of play. Curtain.' It immediately alerts you to the fact that you are watching a play. Was the director trying to tell us that the production should be viewed as something other than a finished work and we as audience members need to be reminded that it is just a play and no semblance of reality should be inferred?

If this is true then they've hit the nail on the head as I am hard pressed to point out a performance that transcended the actors ambition. In fact, they pointed out their own deviations from the original character description. At the opening, the voiceover introduces the main characters with a physical description. For the most part, none of the descriptions matched the actor playing the role. Gun, foot, shoot.

There is one saving grace. During the second act it dawned on me that this was most likely an early version of A Streetcar Named Desire with Heavenly as a young Blanche. This could also point to Blanches attraction to Stanley. In Spring Storm, there's a scene at the end where Dick, covered in mud, tries to convince Heavenly, dressed in white for a party, to go away with him. They embrace, getting Heavenly's dress all muddy. The image of Dick as Stanley Kowalski came into my head. Dick leaves without Heavenly and you could imagine her never getting over it - this could be transferred to Blanche's the attraction to Stanley as a Streetcar back story. I've heard this mentioned before but I had forgotten about it until that scene.

What did I get from my evening? Hearing and seeing an unknown Tennessee Williams play that although not one of his best was still enjoyable in that Tennessee Williams way. There could have been much more made of it, if only the production had been up to it. I long for someone to have a real go, if you cast extremely talented actors this could be amazing. I know all the reviews have been raves, I'm not sure if they are reviewing the play or the production. Either way, Tennessee emerges fit as a fiddle and the production - DOA.