The Night of the Iguana, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Night of the Iguana

There isn't any sex in Nantucket... unless they catch you at it.
---- Hannah Jelkes
The Night of the Iguana
Woody Harrelson as Shannon
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
It's the early 1940s and Hitler gloats that London is in flames. But down here in Mexico, the war is the eternal one between flesh and spirit.

At the bottom of this hill a coach-load of hysterical middle-aged Texan spinsters is burning up in the afternoon heat. Strong emotion also reigns here in the seedy Costa Verde hotel: newly-widowed Maxine Faulk (Clare Higgins) is getting all the sex she needs, which is a lot, though local boys Pancho (Federico Zanni) and Pedro (Simon Kassianides) are happy to job-share.

But Maxine and the tourists have more in common than you might think. They feel passionately about tour guide Larry Shannon (Woody Harrelson). He has brought the Texan ladies here and dumped them in a little bit of reality for the good of their souls. Consequently they loathe him and plot revenge. Maxine also has designs on the poor man: she wants Shannon to allow her to mother him -- though rather in the manner Jocasta mothered Oedipus.

Who, if anyone, will control his fate?

Larry, once the Reverend Lawrence Shannon, is a man warped by drink, lust and guilt. But like Oscar Wilde, though he may be in the gutter he is looking at the stars. If all he can see is the vengeful face of God, at least the terror tells him he's alive and lends him eloquence and insight. For Larry understands life, people, even himself - but there's little he can do about it. Though he's off the booze -- for the moment -- he has seduced and abused one 16-year old virgin too many and now he's at the end of the road.

Then into his life walks Miss Hannah Jelkes (Jenny Seagrove), a very different kind of spinster. Like Larry, Hannah is marginal, damaged, and has a sense of the spiritual. But unlike him she has faced down her demons and has some control over her life. She takes Larry in hand -- despite Maxine's opposition -- and soon he is a clean-shaven, clean-dressed, clean-living parson once more, happily married with children on the way.

But no, of course he isn't. This is a Tennessee Williams' play and there are no happy endings for these people, only degrees of defeat. Late Williams, Night of the Iguana is a rich if unsatisfying experience. The more farcical and satirical elements have not lasted well and we seem to be watching a big fat awkward play with a sleek two-hander trying to get out. The first part is busy and noisy, starting with coach horns and ending with a tropical storm, with new characters appearing and disappearing all the time. The second part is as powerful as it is restrained and reflective, turning into a dialogue between two battered survivors. If Shannon is oppressed by mother figures, Hannah is a martyr to her grandfather. Their consonant names are surely no accident; they inch towards a relationship, like the siblings they never had. Fallen angel and virgin hustler, they gaze up from the gutter together.

Woody Harrelson as Shannon and Jenny Seagrove as Hannah wring every drop of exquisite pathos from their scenes. It is worth going to the Lyric just to see the look in Hannah's eyes when Shannon touches her hair. Jenny Seagrove steadily builds a performance that wrenches the emotional centre of the play towards Hannah, making her final scene almost unbearably painful. But Woody Harrelson matches her point for point in their sly, witty and nuanced exchanges, bristling with dark erotic energy and slaloming through Shannon's tricky speech rhythms like an Olympic champion.

They are ably supported by a powerful cast, who try to bring the less plausible scenes to life. Jenna Harrison and Nichola McAuliffe do their best with roles that never really mesh, while Clare Higgins is a commanding Maxine, though too young and attractive to be as menacing as she could be. John Franklyn-Robbins is a moving nonagenarian Nonno, trying to finish one last poem before he dies.

Anthony Ward's design is impressively detailed and seedy, offering a convincing storm complete with torrential rain. Anthony Page's direction highlights the relationship between Shannon and Hannah, allowing them the space they need. The more physical moments are less fluent, though a frisson ran through the house each time Woody whacked his machete into that tree stump. There were well-deserved cheers for Mr Harrelson at the end, but some might think the night -- and the iguana -- really belongs to Ms Seagrove.

1. What does the iguana symbolise?
2. Which item of Hannah's clothing helped the Aussie salesman achieve bliss?
3. Why didn't Tennessee Williams tell us the answer to 2?

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Anthony Page

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Clare Higgins, Jenny Seagrove
With: Nichola McAuliffe, Federico Zanni, Simon Kassianides, Peter Banks, Nancy Baldwin, Sean Power, John Franklyn-Robbins, Jenna Harrison
Design: Anthony Ward
Composer: Dominic Muldowney
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Colin Pink
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1107
Booking 25th March 2006
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 6th December 2005 at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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