The Fat Man’s Wife was written in the late 1930s when Tennessee Williams was in his twenties, and a good decade before his most famous plays. Perhaps, like a lot of writers, Williams was keen to conceal his early works, seeing them as feet-finding exercises, since the Fat Man’s Wife lay undiscovered until 2000 – seventeen years after the playwright’s death.
An intriguing question that arises given the circumstance surrounding the play, and the significance of this being the first ever performance of it in the UK, is would the playwright be turning in his grave to see a long-buried work brought to life, or delighted?
Well, we’ll never know. But judged on its merits, The Fat Man’s Wife is a well-written and simply but clearly structured one-act play. There are flashes of vintage Williams in the dialogue, and the characters are embryos of his most famous creations.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and the Cartwrights have been to a glitzy showbiz party. Returning home, drink loosens their tongues, and they challenge one another about their indiscretions. Joe (Richard Stephenson Winter) is the titular fat man, a struggling theatre producer with more than a few hang-ups; whilst Vera (Emma Taylor), his wife, is beautiful and glamorous yet neglected, with her best years behind her. When Joe pops out for some ‘aspirin’, plucky young playwright Dennis (Damien Hughes) pays Vera a visit, intending to make her an offer she can’t refuse.
This production of The Fat Man’s Wife suffers from the Elia Kazan effect of making Tennessee Williams ponderous. There’s much in his dialogue that is funny, and he repeatedly invites us to laugh at the pretentions and vanities of his creations. Without levity Williams is leaden, and there are a few too many unnecessary Pinteresque pauses and dramatic weight given to ‘significant’ lines here. It’s one way of playing it, and it’s consistent, but it doesn’t necessarily shine the best light on the source material.
The standout performance is Emma Taylor as Vera Cartwright, who embodies everything you would hope in a Williams’ heroine. Admittedly, she’s helped by the script, since Williams was one of the few male playwrights to write women better than men, but her portrayal of an ageing beauty is subtle and dignified, whilst her biting sarcasm is timed to perfection. Richard Stephenson Winter has more success in the later scenes as Joe, utilising a hangdog expression that makes him ideal for the role. Whilst his flashes of anger early on convince, it’s a hand somewhat over-played. As the young love interest, Damien Hughes gives an interesting showing, hampered slightly by a peculiar and wavering accent, though he successfully brings in some neat comic touches.
The intimate setting of the Canal Café Theatre is an excellent choice for the play. The audience is invited to silently intrude on the living room of the Cartwrights, and director Russell Lucas exploits the tension skilfully. The warm, orange lighting set against the dark red walls is also a perfect choice, and the set details and costumes admirably capture the period.
Overall, even though it’s a short piece, The Fat Man’s Wife could afford to sacrifice dramatic weight for a tighter pace. Admirers of Tennessee Williams’ work will find a production they’ve never seen before, which does justice to the source material and has the playwright’s distinctive stamp all over it. The Fat Man’s Wife is a curiosity that deserves to find its audience.
This review is based on a preview performance given on 13th February.