Orpheus Descending review: Fascinating Hattie Morahan helps oddball Williams play exert grip

Though typical of Tennessee Williams in its lurid emotions, lush language and claustrophobia, this Fifties play is one of his stranger efforts. It’s a fiery portrait of guilt, solitude and vicious bigotry, but almost buckles beneath the weight of its symbolism.

Orpheus, Greek myth’s great musical charmer, is represented by Val, a handsome drifter who seduces the residents of a decaying Mississippi town with his talent for the guitar and trademark snakeskin jacket (which here looks as if it’s made of biltong). He’s an alluring enigma, and Seth Numrich brings an understated soulfulness to the role, though he could do with more rebellious swagger.

The community where he finds himself is full of oddballs — and also busybodies like Laura Jane Matthewson’s gossipy Dolly. Among those entranced by Val are Carol Royle’s Vee, the sheriff’s deranged wife, and Jemima Rooper’s wild and magnetic Carol, who describes herself as the neighbourhood’s “lewd vagrant”.

Less quick to fall under his spell is the owner of the local dry goods store. Known to all as Lady, she’s married to a dying man and haunted by the murder of her father, a Sicilian immigrant reviled by the Ku Klux Klan for serving liquor to black people.

Hattie Morahan is fascinating to watch as Lady, a mixture of insider and outsider who sheds her tough, wry, frozen manner and is suddenly reborn. Only when she’s onstage does the production really exert a firm grip. Director Tamara Harvey savours the lyrical qualities of Williams’s writing while choosing to tone down the more overripe and exotic moments with a staging that’s at times austere. But there’s not enough chemistry between Lady and Val, and this revival never quite finds its rhythm.

Until July 6 (020 7378 1713, menierchocolate factory.com)