Small Craft Warnings @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Sian Thomas
Jack Shepherd
Greg Hicks
John Nolan
Meredith MacNeil
Ian Richardson

directed by
Bill Bryden
A sail fish hangs above Monks bar, gleaming and glossy. Its about the only clean, untainted thing in Tennessee Williamss 1972 play, Small Craft Warnings, set in a Californian beach bar where human flotsam drifts in on the tide.

Apparently Williams specified fog blowing in off the Pacific in his stage directions, spewing forth desperate men and women like something in a John Carpenter film. We dont get fog during Bill Brydens revival at the Arcola, but we do get desperation. The play reeks of it. Broken people and the whiff of bourbon. Theres the Doctor, who cant get through the night without a cocktail of brandy and Benzedrine; the short-order cook with the pot-belly and the My Name Is Earl moustache; the feckless layabout who calls his cock junior with pride rather than irony and the gay Hollywood screenwriter whose life no longer surprises him. Then theres the young farm boy, hope undimmed, who he has picked up en route, and Violet, thin-limbed and prone to wailing in the ladies toilets, the varnish peeling off her dirty finger nails, who regularly dispenses hand jobs under the cover of the incongruously quaint red and white checked table cloths.

In the middle of all this theres Leona, the trailer dwelling beautician whose eyes have clearly seen things. It is her brothers death-day and she sways round the place listening to violin music on the duke box, trying to pry another drink from Monk the bartender, who kindly but firmly declines.

Sian Thomas is superb as Leona, hardened but soft at the same time, a force to be reckoned with. No-one else in the fine cast gets quite the same chance to shine. Jack Shepherd, as Monk, has the spot-on look and manner of the man behind the bar and Greg Hicks makes an impression as the wasp-tongued and bitter, blazer-clad screenwriter Quentin who compares gay sex to a jab with a hypodermic. Meredith MacNeil, black bra showing through her a flimsy dress, dark hair piled up on her head (in a fashion appropriately reminiscent of Amy Winehouse), is also memorable as the fog-brained Violet.

The play is a difficult one, bleak and meandering, with shards of lyrical beauty amidst the murk. Each character takes their turn to step forward and spin out a confessional monologue, before retreating back into the wash. It has its powerful moments but something about it just doesnt sit right. Its a hard, tired play. And it is tiring to watch, all that misery, those empty lives. Brydens production is moving in places but also wearying, and, talented as the cast are, they sometimes struggle to do much with this collage of lost, sloshed people.

The detailed bar room design (by Hayden Griffin) has some nice touches and the beat of the Pacific, the constant sound of crashing waves outside the door gives a certain rhythm to the piece, but it remains a play of moments rather than a satisfying whole.

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