Tennessee Williams’ original 1955 play, “27 Wagons Full Of Cotton”, was re-written by Williams as a screenplay in 1956, and, in collaboration with director Elia Kazan, re-named “Baby Doll”. It starred the wonderful Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach.
It shocked its 1950s audiences and was condemned by religious leaders, but won Elia Kazan a 1957 Golden Globe Award for best director.
In 2015, a new stage adaptation was written by the illustrious Pierre Laville and Emily Mann and does not disappoint. It maintains Williams’ rich dialogue with the pathos of human frailty and tragedy that he is famous for.
The story is set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. Baby Doll (Kate Cheel) has married the much older Archie Lee Meighan (Jamie Oxenbould), a cotton gin owner, 2 years ago (with the blessing of her dying father). She has made a deal to consummate their marriage at her own choosing after her 20th birthday.
The play opens shortly before her 20th. Alcoholic, struggling Archie has almost lost his cotton business due to his more successful neighbour, the dashing and charismatic Silva Vacarro (Socratis Otto). Baby Doll is childish, petulant and distant with her husband, making the most of her sexual denial and ridiculing him after their furniture has been re-possessed. Her only friend is her ageing and confused old Aunt Rose Comfort (Maggie Dence) who lives with them.
Silva’s cotton gin business is burnt down and suspecting Archie, he arrives at their home to seek revenge and offer his cotton to be ginned. Bored with her life, Baby Doll is instantly attracted to Silva, who subtly taunts and teases her with his riding crop. Baby Doll undergoes a major sexual transformation. She has changed from a girl to a woman, full of court and spark, liberated.
Williams is a master at writing scenes like this and there is ample humour throughout the play.
Director Shaun Rennie has brought vigour and passion to the stage. The contagious energy fills the room. The actors are extremely well cast and all give great performances.
Kate Cheel is brilliant as Baby Doll, before and after she meets Silva, almost like two different characters, which works in this production.
Jamie Oxenbould is grand and very funny as the horrid, loud and slovenly drunk, Archie. Socratis Otto plays a very smooth Silva and captures the swashbuckling, sexy male hero that Tennessee Williams loves to write.
Maggie Dence makes the most of Aunt Rose, bringing out her amusing one-liners.
Set & costume designer, Anna Tregloan has had to adapt the set she designed for the co-current play, “Fully Committed”. Although stark and grey, it draws attention to the actors and the staircase and upper (secret) room work well. Verity Hampson has done great lighting and likewise, Nate Edmondson’s music and sound design is powerful and haunting. His voice-overs work well.
BABY DOLL is a rich and enjoyable play. Definitely worth seeing.
It runs 90 minutes with no interval and plays at the Ensemble Theatre until November 16th, 2019.
Featured image – Kate Cheel as Baby Doll, Socratis Otto as Silva Vacarro_in ‘BabyDoll’. at the Ensemble Pic PrudenceUpton