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STAGE REVIEW: Reptile dead on arrival

Vacationing Nazis and Clive Owen's turbulent priest in The Night of the Iguana. Photo: Brinkhoof/Moegenburg - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER reviews The Night of the Iguana at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.

“Oh God, please can’t we stop now?” wails Lia Williams as a downtrodden artist towards the end of James Macdonald’s production of The Night of the Iguana. It was a sentiment I suspect a fair proportion of the first night audience – the woman fast asleep beside me, for sure – would have wearily endorsed.

On a hot and steamy night in the capital, I had, however, been drawn to Tennessee Williams’ hot and steamy tale, not least because I had indelible memories of Richard Burton’s mesmerising film portrayal of the troubled priest at its heart who finds solace among a group of misfits in a run-down hotel. The trouble is, Clive Owen is no Richard Burton and maybe only a star of Burton’s magnitude could ever have brought this stuffed old iguana back to life.

It’s the autumn of 1940 and on the hotel verandah overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Owen’s priest has to find a modus vivendi with Anna Gunn as the establishment’s recently-widowed owner, Williams as the artist caring for her ailing 97-year-old grandfather, and Julian Glover – in reality, a mere 84 – playing said grandfather.

They’re all miserable in their own ways, but Owen’s character the most demonstrably so with a breakdown at the end. It is as good as any portrait of depression, but what it lacks is any discernible storyline to keep the audience awake for the full three hours that the play runs. What journeys the actors embark upon are all internal and as a consequence there’s not a lot to see here.

There is an attempt to brighten things up with what I can only call a group of comedy Nazis – Alasdair Baker leading a group of vacationing Germans who spend the whole time either heading off to the beach or coming back from it – but, all in all, Estragon’s complaint in Waiting for Godot is a fair enough summary of the fundamental problem here: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

Peter Shaffer’s play Equus is based on the horrifying true story of an apparently normal young man who blinded six horses in rural Suffolk. It is, to all intents and purposes, an adventure in psychiatry and it was turned into a film – also with Richard Burton – and, more recently, staged with Daniel Radcliffe.

Its male nudity means it always creates a bit of a stir – there were predictable jokes about Radcliffe’s ‘wand’ the last time around – but Shaffer’s script is still ponderous and pretentious stuff.

Ned Bennett’s revival at the Trafalgar Studios in London is, however, uniquely compelling thanks purely to Ethan Kai’s performance as the disturbed youngster. There is a haunting, almost mystical, quality to his acting that makes me hope very much that the next time I see him on stage it will be in the title role of Hamlet. He was born to play the role.