Meandering through Borough Market and out on to Southwark Street, I walk towards the setting sun as I’m about to round off a splendid sunny day with some Tennessee Williams at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, writes Christopher Peacock. 

Not to see Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie or even Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. No, it’s the lesser-known Orpheus Descending, presented as a co-production with Theatr Clwyd, which is to supply my evening’s fix of southern drama.

The play itself has not always been too well received. It struggled in its initial Broadway run and even a film adaptation with Marlon Brando couldn’t elevate the piece into the hearts and minds of audiences both here and in the USA. It is in itself an adaptation from an earlier work of Williams’ called Battle of Angels.

Orpheus Descending is a tale of wandering troubadore Valentine Xavier, who winds up in a small conventional southern town; his mere presence causes a stir amongst the gossiping faction of women. He gets work in the dry goods store because the proprietor, Jabe Torrance, is on his deathbed in the room upstairs and Lady Torrence could do with help running the store. The drama unfolds as tensions rise. His free spirit is the antithesis of his environment. His relationship with Lady Torrence evolves and he is soon told to leave. 

The performances of Seth Numrich as Valentine and Hattie Morahan as Lady Torrence were the highlights. Their character growth and transformation were the driving force of the whole production. The play’s themes of conformity, racism, sexual frustration and small town syndrome are all classics of Southern Gothic dramas. But there is a reason why this is not a Tennessee Williams classic and I think in part it is due to the narrative at times being awkward and clunky. It also suffers from being one paced.

As a depiction of Southern life in small towns Tamara Harvey’s production certainly ticks the boxes with strong performances from quite a large cast. I just feel Orpheus Descending is a bit unrefined and if you’re looking for something that reflects or comments on today’s society, this probably isn’t the piece for you.

Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU until July 6th. Times: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, Saturday & Sunday 3:30pm. Admission: £37.50 – £55. Phone: 020 7378 1713

Photos: Credit Johan Persson