Southern Belles at the King’s Head Theatre: Press night review by Stephen Vowles

The incomparable Tennessee Williams is proven by these two one acts plays to be the amazing wordsmith that he was with his command of the English language with acute observations of the tone and resonance his characters have, make these two plays even more powerful. 

Something Unspoken focuses on the relationship between Cornelia Scott played by Annabel Leventon with an air of sophistication typical of the grand society ladies of Louisiana in 1948 and her secretary of 14 years Grace, played with a real sense of foreboding by Fiona Marr. 

This is about social manners, etiquette, respectability and blatant snobbery where old money talks, and intrigue and duplicitous behaviour is to be expected and even welcomed as the other ladies in Cornelia’s circle decide who is going to be new ‘regent’, the head of their community. 

Williams wrote strong female characters – think Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Blanche in Streetcar, and with Cornelia Scott Williams seemed to have gotten into the head  of how this type of woman, the matriarch, would go about her daily life. He gets the female psyche. He suggests a sexual connection between the two ladies and reading between the lines you have to conclude that Cornelia wants a sapphic link but her request and loud orders goes unrequited.

Williams is always heavy on symbolism with Cornelia gifting Grace fourteen white roses expressing a token of her affection and what she thinks is a deep and meaningful friendship. This is a stunning two hander of pure class.

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens sets the action in 1955 New Orleans and what makes this piece so interesting is this is the only play Williams wrote to feature openly gay characters. 

The cast of four characters, Candy, Karl, Alvin and Jerry played by Luke Mullins, George Fletcher, Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen respectively, are simply perfect. Under the very precise direction by Jamie Armitage, the feel of the time and the anxiety felt by the four is at the forefront of these four mesmerising performances, especially Luke Mullins whose emergence into the character of transvestite Candy is a phenomenal piece of acting. 

Here Williams does not hold back on the power of desire, lust and male to male attraction, using terms like ‘chicken’ to describe a young man ready to be plucked from degradation and launched into high society. He uses the word ‘sponsor’ rather than sugar daddy. In the character of Karl, played with a brooding excellence by George Fletcher, comparison has to be made to Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar Named Desire written by Williams some seven years earlier. 

This is the gay equivalent, the rough trade, testosterone-fuelled brute of a man who knows he is desired by both men and women and takes immediate advantage of his skill in the art of manipulation. Candy wants to smooth out the edges of this rough diamond, become the teacher as he was taught before. This is feisty theatre imaginatively staged using the vibrancy of a fuchsia pink carpet to reinforce the bitter sweet sentiment of these two beautiful one act masterpieces that are linked also by a very serious theme – the descent into the maelstrom of madness. Sensational on every level and I urge you to see these and it is to the producer’s credit that they have been staged. Absorbing theatre does not get any better than this. A huge bravo to all concerned.


Southern Belles runs to 24 August as the headlining production of the Annual Queer Season at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington N1 1QN. Box office: 020 7226 8561 

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