Confessional by Tennessee Williams

When the sun is shining on a windowed room, it can be hard to tell if the lights are on inside. It may even seem like those lights are broken, their glow insignificant in comparison to the daylight.

Stanton’s stellar performance dims my impression of the rest.

That’s my impression of Confessional, a later Tennessee Williams play transplanted from 70s California to modern day England. The venue is transplanted, too, into a simple, but functional bar. The dive bar is Williams’ chosen scene, and the audience enters as well. This leads to cool opportunities. The bartender takes drink orders as the audience walks in, and some of the audience get to join the cast around the bar tables. One cast member even flirts with the audience on the sly. It’s reminiscent of Jim Cartwright’s Two; the scene, the bar, is essential as a place where different segments of the population come together to be dramatically dissected.

The cast are about what you’d expect from the scene: a doctor with no legal license and a drinking problem, an emotionally-troubled girl with wandering hands, and a man living off the virility of his member. And at the center, Leona. Lizzie Stanton plays marvellously as one of Williams’ tragic heroines. The character feels like a lower-class Blanche DuBois, or an unmarried Maggie Pollitt, with that same emotional intensity and brutal honesty. Stanton grounds Williams’ often poetic, always complex speeches with a down-to-earth reality. She stumbles around the room in perfect control of the scene. She laughs, cries and drinks with such vivacity that it is often impossible to look anywhere else on stage.

But like the sun on a windowed room, Stanton’s stellar performance dims my impression of the rest. There are highlights: Ray Bethley brings a worn-out resignation to the bartender, Monk. Abi McLoughlin strikes a real emotional chord towards the end of the play in her performance as the doctor. But largely it feels flat. It feels unreal and awkward.

The difference between the US and UK ways of speaking is more than an accent. It’s more than just switching ‘r’ and ‘e’ at the ends of words, or adding or dropping the ‘u’ from ‘humour’ or ‘honour’. The two countries have distinctive terms, rhythms, and patterns of speech. Shakespeare is adaptable because the audience accepts the antiquity of the language, and because his distinctive rhythm (iambic pentameter) is easily adjustable. But with a modern playwright, shipping his work across the Atlantic makes those differences apparent.

That, I believe, is my problem with many of the performances in Confessional. The compromise between distinctively American dialogue and distinctively British voices creates characters that don’t sound like anyone, and many of the actors are unable to convincingly overcome this dilemma. Despite a powerhouse leading performance, Confessional is uncomfortable in its own skin.

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The Blurb

Share a drink with a group of shameless lowlifes and watch their lives implode. This innovative, immersive production reimagines Tennessee Williams's play in a British seaside bar, frequented by life's flotsam and jetsam. Join the regulars over the course of a furious and fun evening, as a pair of strangers enters their world and all hell breaks loose. Written in 1970, Confessional features Williams's first openly gay character and arguably his most sympathetic female character: needy beautician, Leona. This is a rare opportunity to experience the writing of a literary giant in an unpolished state.