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Published on May 17th, 2016 | by Juliet England


Review: Suddenly Last Summer – Progress Theatre

Suddenly Last Summer, widely considered Tennessee Williams’ starkest and most poetic work, may be a short piece of theatre, but it’s intensely demanding of both cast and audience.

Set in a sultry 1930s New Orleans garden which teems with birdlife, it focuses on the elderly Violet Venable (Progress stalwart Liz Carroll), whose son Sebastian has died unexpectedly the year before. A (much) poorer cousin, Catharine Holly (Rebecca Douglas) was with him in Europe when he perished in gruesome circumstances.

Apparently insane, only Catharine knows what really happened, and she tells the bleak story of the previous summer under the influence of a truth serum injected by Dr Cukrowicz (Daniel Brown), much as her aunt tries to cover up the grim reality, her dead son’s sexuality, and her own stroke which meant she couldn’t go travelling with Sebastian as she normally did. (No-one can tell me that mother/son relationship was a healthy one.)

Mrs Venable even threatens Catharine with a lobotomy for her ‘insane’ utterances, even though, as Dr Cukrowicz says at the end, she could be telling the truth. Wiliams’ own sister, Rose, was lobotomised as a treatment for mental illness, and the procedure was a hot issue at the time the playwright wrote Suddenly.

This one act play, no longer as frequently performed as it once was alongside another of Williams’ works of a similar length, Something Unspoken, is, in many ways, little more than lengthy monologues from the two leading women, stitched together.

However, there were strong supporting performances in the Reading revival from Daniel Brown and Alison Hill and Alex Hobbs, who respectively played Catharine’s mother and her brother George.

As for the two main actors, Carroll and Douglas turned in a couple of extremely watertight performances. The role of Catharine in particular, at the very emotional nexus of this show, asks so much of the actor who plays her, and must have been hugely draining to do. But Douglas convinced from the outset, as the damaged, fragile wreck of a woman torn from all sides by both her family and Mrs Venable.

The set for the Reading revival was also particularly good, faithfully recreating the steaming garden with swathes of greenery so that you felt right there in its sweltering depths.

This is by no means an easy production to pull off, not least because of the Southern accents, which this cast managed with no small panache, all under the tight direction of Laura Barns.

Suddenly this summer, drama in Reading has become worth going out for on a school night.

Suddenly Last Summer is being performed at Progress Theatre until Saturday 21st May.

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About the Author

is a Reading-based freelance copywriter and journalist and is the author of two non-fiction books. As a child, she was bitten by the author Arthur C Clarke's monkey in Sri Lanka, but has since recovered from the experience.

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