Sweet Bird of Youth (4 stars)

Dundee Rep, until Sat 11 Nov

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CLASSIC

Ladies, step this way. If you’re up for a sexual thrill, just check out the opening act of Tennessee Williams’ magnificent Sweet Bird of Youth and see Alan Turkington preening around in his pyjama bottoms, flexing his clean shaven chest and looking every inch the 29-year-old gigolo a fading movie star would want to find in her hotel bedroom after a night on the vodka and dope. Irene Macdougall, spilling out of her nightie as the clapped out Alexandra del Lago, can’t even mention sex without Turkington running his hands round his waistband as if permanently primed to leap into bed.

But wait! The clock is ticking against such simmering sensuality and Turkington’s Chance Wayne knows only too well he can’t trade on his good looks forever. He’s holed up in a hotel room in his home town of St Cloud, Florida in a last-ditch attempt to deliver on the good-looking promise he showed when he left a decade earlier.

If he can only patch things up with his teenage sweetheart, the once heavenly Heavenly, and blackmail Del Lago into giving them a leg-up into the film industry, there’s still a chance he can defy the laws of time. Otherwise, he’ll be some washed up never-was, like a failed X Factor contestant from our own celebrity-obsessed era, and he’s not going to get any younger.

It’s with a sense of all-too-knowing horror in James Brining’s superb production that we watch Chance crumble from a soft-talking hustler to a fidgeting wreck of a man, popping pills with increasing frequency the more his ambitions look stupidly unattainable. The unexpected rise of the equally neurotic Del Lago, who discovers her career is no longer in free-fall, offers little solace: she’s merely an accidental beneficiary of the same superficial celebrity system that’s grinding Chance down.

Macdougall and Turkington give masterly performances, as nuanced and intelligent as they are painful to watch. Williams’ unrelenting dialogue has a symphonic structure which they play with musicianly accomplishment. Their monstrous characters dominate the play, but there are strong performances throughout, notably John Buick as a hard-nosed spin-doctoring politician and Kim Gerard as a fierce and volatile Heavenly, her youth stolen by sexually transmitted disease. With the atmospheric waves of Anthea Haddow’s score amplifying the oppressive sense of sticky Southern heat, it’s a mature and confident production of a fantastic play that holds you gripped from languid beginning to vicious end.

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