Mrs Wire runs her shabby New Orleans boarding house with Basil Fawlty's arch sense of misplacEd Morality and a similar contempt for guests that spills over, literally at one point, into violence. Like Fawlty Towers, there are residents fallen on hard times, others on the make, everyone clinging to a dream that doesn't match the reality, while chaos threatens the whole edifice. The house stands below the waterline not just geographically, but socially and psychologically too.
Vieux Carré was written late in Tennessee Williams' life, when the drink and drugs had begun to swamp his genius, but the play has plenty of his lyricism, his bleak view of humanity and his dark sense of humour. The residents of the boarding house, like the residents of New Orleans itself, cling to a precarious existence but revel in the unique freedoms given to those who walk the tightrope - but they don't all stay upright.
In a preposterously tight staging that puts the audience right in the midst of the cramped fetid rooms of Mrs Wire's house, Robert Chevara's direction, supported by Richard Williamson's lighting, creates just enough space for some fine performances to capture the pathos and poetry of Williams' words. As The Writer, unsure of his professional and personal life, Tom Ross-Williams provides some stability as the madness whirls about him. Nancy Crane is funny and, later, frightening as Mrs Wire and enjoys some bravura bickering with David Whitworth, splendid as the dying painter Nightingale, still rapacious in his desire for The Writer as the life is coughed out of him. Best of a uniformly outstanding cast is Samantha Coughlan, a sophisticated New Yorker with a secret, grabbing a little of the sensual life she craves with a beefcake boyfriend (Paul Standell).
There's nudity, robust language and smoking and much sadness in all the characters, but, as The Writer leaves the house and the ghosts of his memories fade, one is left with a strangely uplifting thought - humanity, for all its human failings, given just enough love and respect, can get by and, sometimes, escape to different, better, things.
Vieux Carré continues at the Kings Head Theatre until August.