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Rigg delivers a masterclass in Williams' nasty little tale

Review: David Munro

SUDDENLY Last Summer is a play of revenge; that of Mrs Venables (Diana Rigg) on her niece, Catherine (Victoria Hamilton), for the death of her son, Sebastian, with whom Catherine had been travelling when he died.

Catherine has returned alone and tells her aunt that Sebastian has been raped, murdered and eaten by boys on the beach, whom he was trying to pick up.

Mrs Venables, determined to protect her son's reputation, and furious with her niece for stealing, as she believes, her son's love from her, has her incarcerated in an asylum.

Not content with that, she now wants her lobotomised, so that the memory of Sebastian's death is, quite literally, cut out of her brain.

For this, she enlists the help of Dr Cukrowicz, bribing him with promises to fund his asylum.

While all this is going on Catherine's mother, (Abigail McKern) and brother, (Patrick Kennedy), arrive intent on getting Mrs Venable to release money left to them in Sebastian's will.

The moral, if there is one, to this grisly parable is that under the veneer of civilisation, every one is an animal and survives by the law of the jungle - eat or get eaten, actually or metaphorically.

The action of the play takes place in Mrs Venables' garden, in New Orleans. The set, by Christopher Oram, is a brooding garden, framed by large red, fleshy flowers, and gives the impression of a vast carnivorous plant, which seeks to ingest the characters on stage.

In the centre, like a large spider, Diana Rigg's Mrs Venables dominates it and the action.

Her Mrs Venables is a desiccated Grande Dame, venomous, but still sufficiently in control of herself, so as never to lose the veneer of manners and graciousness which makes her all the more repulsive.

Her scenes with the doctor indicate that there remains still some sexual life in the old bitch yet, that gives an incestuous twist to her obsessive love for her dead son. It is a performance really beyond praise and one which justifies the revival of this perverse and nasty little fable.

As the fly caught in Mrs Venables' web, Victoria Hamilton's Catherine, gives as good as she gets in her performance of someone trapped in a situation beyond her control, and from which she is unable to escape.

Even though her scenes with Dame Diana are dominated by the Dame, and her overwhelming malevolence, she still manages to convey the impression that she must have been a character in her own right, and one which it is conceivable that Sebastian could have loved.

As the venal Doctor, Mark Bazely is convincingly unctuous and, in his scenes with Dame Diana, he maintains his cool poise, even though she makes it apparent that she expects more than a lobotomy for her money.

He is a sinister presence in the gallery of unpleasant characters conjured up by Tennessee Williams to assuage his guilt for his own sister's lobotomy.

The rest of the cast are understandably overshadowed by the major roles; nevertheless, Patrick Kennedy and Abigail McKern make their presence felt ,as Catherine's nasty family, as does Virginia Denham, as the somewhat over the top Nun/nurse, in charge of Catherine.

While looked at dispassionately, all the characters are unbelievable as real persons, nonetheless, the director, Michael Grandage's skill, and the performances make this a staggering night of theatre.

Tennessee Williams' creed that God shows a savage face may not strike a chord in everyone's heart, but in this play, he succeeds in showing that it might just be credible.

Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams.
Director, Michael Grandage; Designer, Christopher Oram.
WITH: Diana Rigg; Victoria Hamilton; Mark Bazely; Patrick Kennedy; Abigail McKern; Virginia Denham.
Producer, Sheffield Theatres.
Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.
Mon, April 19 - Sat, 24, 2004. Mon - Sat eves - 7.45pm, Mat: Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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