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A CurtainUp London Review
The Night of the Iguana

"Mexico is the front door to South America and the back door to the States."
— Maxine
The Night of the Iguana
Clive Owen as Larry
(Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenberg)
The movie of The Night of the Iguana is not one I've seen but its star Richard Burton is an actor whom I would quite readily listen to reading out the telephone directory. Now Clive Owen is a remarkable actor, on stage and on film, given the right material but somehow Tennessee Williams's play about the almost defrocked priest working as a tour guide isn't it.

Rae Smith's Mexican shanty town looks good with its shacks roofed in corrugated iron, set in a red sandstone gorge iwhich s colourful and accurate. Running through this play are the distractingly jolly, beach loving Germans, Nazis, seeking a place from where they cannot be extradited. The end of the first act has a spectacular thunderstorm, heavy rain flooding the stage and lightning lighting up the sky accompanied by a thunderous sound scape. A theatrical Blitzkrieg. The Germans celebrating the bombing of London is unescapable.

As the Americans in the bus are struck by Montezuma's Revenge, the coach load of Southern Baptist girls and women are stranded at the bottom of the hillside while their tour guide the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon seeks refuge in the bar and hotel owned by Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn known as the wife Skyler in Breaking Bad). Her husband Fred has died recently and Maxine is looking for someone to fill his shoes and his bed apart from two Mexicans Pedro (Daniel Chaves) and Pancho (Manuel Pacific).

Finty Williams, Judi Dench's daughter, plays the obnoxious Mrs Judith Fellowes who is chaperoning the girls and complains vociferously. Charlotte Goodall (Emma Canning) is the 16 year old child who has a crush on Shannon and pursues him relentlessly. She is why he has been accused of having sex with an under age child. Mrs Fellowes broadcasts her low opinion of Reverend Shannon.

Arriving at the hotel are Nonno (Julian Glover) a nonagenarian looking to finish his last poem and his granddaughter Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams) travellers, like driftwood looking for a beach to wash up on. So do we see a theme here of people arriving accidentally looking for something but not knowing what it is they are looking for?

We see the iguana, a giant man sized lizard strung up and carried to be slaughtered and eaten by the locals. The significance of the beast will be realised later in the play. The Night of the Iguana is a middle 1961 play from Tennessee Williams. His great plays tended to have been published first from 1944 to 1960 and the later plays 1963 to 1982 are produced much less and there may be a reason they are less known despite the playwright's large reputation. It may be that his ideas as he reflected on his life were more difficult to stage. When I find myself caring more about animal welfare than the people in the play, I know there's a problem.

The last time Curtain Up reviewed The Night of the Iguana, in London 13 years ago, Brian Clover wrote. Woody Harrelson played the minister locked out of his church and the production is finely described here.

The second half of The Night of the Iguana is a more reflective experience as Larry and Hannah verbally wrestle. But the audience is still grappling with a plethora of minor characters who go nowhere. It is impossible to forgive Larry for his predilection for sexually deflowering 16 year old girls and then hitting them so we cannot warm to him despite Clive Owen's gentle and unassuming performance. It appears that Larry is all about the playwright's self hatred.

While Lia Williams as Hannah is quietly insightful, she is a low key aspect of the whole play coming into her own in the last scenes. I found Anna Gunn as Maxine the cougar too underplayed instead of sultry as the lovely Ava Gardner must have been in the film. I suspect this is a play which means more the number of times you have seen it but I won't find myself volunteering to go to it any time soon.

For more about Tennessee Williams and links reviews of this and other of his play reviewed at Curtainup, check out our the Williams chapter of our Playwrights Album. here

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The Night of the Iguana
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by James Macdonald
Starring: Clive Owen, Anna Gunn, Lia Williams, Finty Williams, Julian Glover
With: Alasdair Baker, Timothy Blore, Emma Canning, Karin Carlson, Daniel Chaves, Ian Drysdale, Manuel Pacific, Faz Singhateh, Penelope Woodman
Design: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim
Fight directors: RC Annie Ltd
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5151
Booking to 28th September 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th July 2019 evening performance at The Noel Coward, St Martin's Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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