25 JUNE 1994, Page 36


Sweet Bird of Youth (National) The Queen And I (Royal Court) Hamlet (Open Air, Regent's Park)

Kings and Queens

Sheridan Morley

Something is stirring down in old Ten- nessee (Williams, that is); amazingly we in London have only ever once before been introduced to Alexandra del Largo, the Princess Kosmonopolis who dominates his Sweet Bird of Youth. On that occasion, at the Haymarket, she was Lauren Bacall: now, in Richard Eyre's stunning new pro- duction for the National, she is Clare Hig- gins. In the gallery of Williams's great, doomed and ravaged heroines, the Princess has always been a curious mix of Lady Macbeth and the Lady of the Camellias, to which rich mix Miss Higgins adds a fair dash of Cleopatra.

As the local boss's daughter, Emma Amos is rather more Tunbridge Wells than the Gulf Coast in her accent and manner, but Richard Pasco cruelly suggests the mas- sive evil of the old South, while the poisoned treacle of Williams's purple prose has seldom been better poured or more lovingly matured. This is in every sense of the word a truly terrible play, but it has a haunting majesty and aches to be made into a musical. And after the disaster of Johnny on a Spot, comes as a welcome reminder of just how well the National can treat the best of Broadway.

Sue Townsend's The Queen and I (Royal Court) is a staging of her bestseller by Max Stafford-Clark's new Out of Joint compa- ny. The story is based on what would hap- pen to the royal family if they were condemned by a new republican govern- ment to live in Hell Close, an inner-city housing estate with less than its fair share of modern conveniences.

This was always a painfully thin idea, and feels stretched as a full-length play. Some of the character-sketches work well: both the Queen and the Queen Mother adapt resourcefully to their new surroundings, while Philip takes resentfully to his bed and Charles drifts off to the nearest organic allotment. Princess Diana suffers badly from a lack of local designer boutiques, but Princess Margaret manages to do several deals with the local criminal fraternity.

The other problem is that a small cast are required to play all the royal family and all their neighbours, so most of their ener- gies are taken up with rapid costume and accent changes. Toby Salaman does a won- derful lookalike impression of a hesitant, hang-dog Prince of Wales but the rest of the cast settle for more thumbnail sketches and are constantly brought up against Townsend's inability to give them anything resembling a plot.

The first-ever Hamlet in the 60-year his- tory of the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park is an efficient canter through a text which the director, Tim Pigott-Smith, has reduced to two-and-a-half hours. The pro- duction benefits enormously from Tanya McCallin's steel-wall setting and a mesmer- ic title performance from Damian Lewis, only a couple of years out of drama school.