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A CurtainUp London London Review
Period of Adjustment

I am afraid I married a stranger.
---- Isabel Haverstick
Period of Adjustment
Lisa Dillon as Isabel Haverstick
(Photo: Simon Annand)
The Almeida is hosting Howard Davies' sympathetic revival of Tennessee Williams' 1960 play, Period of Adjustment, not seen in London since 1962. In a departure from many of Williams' plays, this seems more comedy than tragedy although his finely observed characterisation is ever present as his players battle dysfunction, loneliness and social derision.

It is Christmas Eve. Pretty and ditsy, Texan blonde Isabel Haverstick (Lisa Dillon) is left by her husband George (Benedict Cumberbatch) twenty four hours after she was married at the home of George's Korean army buddy Ralph Baltz (Jared Harris) in Nashville. After a disastrous, overnight stop at the seedy Old Man River Motel, the marriage has not been consummated and things are not going at all well. Dorothea Baltz (Sandy McDade) has gone back to her father's house taking their child, little Ralph, after a falling out with her husband after he resigned his job with her father's company. Much of the first act of the play centres on Isabel who is called Lil'Bit telling the sympathetic Ralph her life story. Ralph cannot believe the opportunity that presents itself: this beautiful woman is in need of comfort. Isabel's oft repeated question, "Where is your wife, Mr Baltz?" doesn't receive an answer. George eventually turns up, and using Ralph as a sounding board, George and Lil' Bit air their differences. Ralph confides in George as to what he finds unsatisfactory about his own marriage. In the final act Dorothea returns to collect Christmas presents for their son.

As we enter the auditorium, there is (stage) snow falling and many of the audience walk through it to reach their seats, an unusual event in Nashville. The Baltz' house is set on two floors, in the High Point district of Nashville, and as Ralph tells us in his deeply Southern accent, built upon a cavern. A crack runs from roof to ground as if accentuating the precarious foundations of both marriages and the house itself. Every so often there is a rumble and more plaster comes down and a picture falls off the wall.

Much of the comedy is about what Lil'Bit says to Mr Baltz. She is na´ve, the original dumb blonde, and totally charming in her innocence. Gems such as, "Mr Baltz," she drawls, "You have hit the nail on the head with the head of the hammer." Lisa Dillon plays the part to perfection in a performance full of intriguing contradiction, sweet and sexy and yet terrified of sex and men. Jared Harris too strikes an exact note as the sleazy man who is more than a little bit interested in the abandoned Mrs Haverstick, but who holds himself back. Ralph explains it all as being about a "period of adjustment". However when George eventually arrives, both men sort out their masculine priorities, having a beer and discussing old times and dreaming about their future. They plan maybe to keep a herd of Texas long horn cattle to furnish the burgeoning movie and television industry Westerns. Cast against type, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the good looking George with terrible shakes. His pain and manly humiliation are evident as he surveys the wreck of his yet to be consummated marriage.

The arrival of Dorothea signals an upbeat moment as both women relish the company of another woman, the niceties of sorting out pillows and bed linen and Isabel lending Dotty a ghastly frilly negligee and nightdress. The lanky Sandy McDade as Dorothea knows Ralph married her for her father's money and it hurts. Parallel bedroom scenes are played, one upstairs, the other downstairs as the couples find resolution. Howard Davies has taken this rarely presented play and made it a really interesting and touching evening in the theatre. A final tremor and the house plunges into darkness, with only the widening crack illuminated. The earth moved for me too!

For more about Tennessee Williams, his plays and links to reviews, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder.

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Jared Harris, Lisa Dillon, Sandy McDade, Benedict Cumberbatch
Design: Mike Britton
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 29th April 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th March 2006 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 (Tube: The Angel Islington)
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