Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Theatre review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In a Young Vic production that, for the first time, skips the Young Vic entirely and goes straight to the West End (and its prices,) the theatre follows up Benedict Andrews’ revolving Streetcar Named Desire with another of the most famous Tennessee Williams plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. We’re still in a sweltering part of the American South (Tennessee itself, this time,) but unlike most Williams characters nobody here is strapped for cash: Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) owns the largest plantation in the state, and his whole family have gathered to celebrate his 65th birthday. What most of the family knows but he doesn’t is that this is his last birthday: The tests he was told came back negative actually revealed he has terminal cancer and very little time left. We see the action from the perspective of alcoholic younger son Brick (Jack O’Connell) and his wife Maggie (Sienna Miller.)

Having broken his ankle the night before in a drunken attempt to recapture his youth as a star football player, Brick is stuck in his bedroom with Maggie, who still loves and desires him but whom he hasn’t had sex with for a long time.

The two have no children as a result of Brick’s disinterest in his wife, and this becomes central to the family plotting that goes on as they prepare for Big Daddy’s death: Brick’s brother Gooper (Brian Gleeson) and his wife Mae (Hayley Squires) have five kids and a sixth on the way, and they’re willing to use this and Brick’s alcoholism as leverage to get everything left to them in the will. Williams is known for his emotional Southern melodramas but in his later career he experimented with a variety of less literal styles. Andrews’ production suggests Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an early attempt to throw a bit more expressionism into his usual recipe, and highlights how the already poetic style of language is used in a more stylised way here, building to refrains as the characters repeat themselves and each other, incapable of ever reaching the point of a conversation.

To that end, Magda Willi’s set is distinctly non-literal, a raised black platform with a gold-tinted mirrored backdrop giving the suggestion of a gilded cage. (There’s also a neon frame, but it had to be turned off after O’Connell threw his crutches around a bit too enthusiastically and broke it.) There’s no walls in this room, and the shower Brick keeps using to cool himself down is onstage, meaning O’Connell has a FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!three separate times over the course of the evening (Miller later also has aSEVERE VADGE WARNING!so a variety of tastes are catered for.) It’s often said that even the most apparently naturalistic plays feature characters getting through a volume of booze that would kill even the most hardened alcoholic, and Andrews hangs a lantern on this, putting the four bottles of scotch Brick gets through in three hours on the edge of the stage, along with multiple glasses and a whole sack full of ice.

The play’s opening act gives so much of its dialogue to Maggie that it’s famously virtually a monologue, and requires something of a tour de force from the lead actress. It’s not something Miller really delivers – the odds are admittedly stacked against her at the start, since however much I like Williams’ writing it’s not easy to pay attention to what she’s saying when Jack O’Connell is ensuring the whole auditorium gets as clear a view of his cock’n’balls’n’bush* as possible. But even once he puts some clothes on Miller seems to be getting through the scene rather than really owning it – it just goes to show that if you sit on a hot tin roof you might get burnt, Sienna.

The interval comes early in this production and when we return there’s a lot more characters on stage as the focus moves from the bedroom problems between Brick and Maggie to how they fit into the rest of the family; O’Connell gets a lot more to wear do now and even if he struggles a bit with the accent – the whole cast seem to, it feels like they should have spent more time with a dialect coach – he’s charismatic enough to bring a lot more life to proceedings. Meaney doesn’t really bring the physical threat to the character of Big Daddy, meaning it doesn’t feel quite as much like layers are being peeled when he sensitively tries to discover if Brick is gay. Squires is memorably merciless as the manipulative Mae though, and Lisa Palfrey, an actress I always like, gets a real transformation (costumes, when the cast actually wear them, by Alice Babidge) into the desperate-for-approval Big Mama. In the final scene the expressionism the production’s been toying with finally starts to appear in earnest as Big Mama throws cake around and the chic black set gradually turns into as much of a mess as the characters on it.

The production’s modern-dress, and the relocation from the 1950s isn’t jarring – depressingly, in that Brick’s avoidance of his sexuality doesn’t feel entirely anachronistic. In fact the only thing that bugged me was the traditional Williams heatwave and the references to leaving the doors open to get a breeze; in 2017 that house, belonging to some of the richest people in the state, would be air-conditioned to within an inch of its life. This Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a mixed bag, with a few standout moments but a pace that never really settles. Andrews leaves his cast naked on stage in more than just the literal cock’n’minge sense, and I think I’d have particularly liked to have had more input from sound designer Gareth Fry: The bang of fireworks as Big Daddy finds out the truth about his health, and the occasional eerie music cues from Jed Kurzel are the all-too-rare moments when the production truly feels electric and shows the potential it almost reaches, but not quite.

Also I feel like this review should feature the word “girth” somewhere, make of that what you will.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 7th of October at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*yes, actual bush on a human male under thirty in the year 2017AD! Maybe it’s a character choice, if you’re as desperate for a drink as Brick is 24/7 you don’t have time for manscaping.

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