Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
26 July 2017
This production firmly grasps the title A Show of Two Halves. Director Benedict Andrews has updated the staging and approaches to Tennessee Williams’ classic drama about the breakdown of a Southern family and the destruction of the marriage of Brick and Maggie. Williams called the play, “a synthesis of all my life”, and the text simmers with passion and violence. Alcoholic Brick is unable to reconcile his homosexual feelings for his dead friend Skipper, Maggie, still desperately in love with him, is aching to prove her worth by falling pregnant and securing his inheritance. Having had a huge success with Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic a couple of years ago, the team are hoping for a hit of equal measure. It almost gets there.
The updating actually works quite well, the gold decor of the walls and sparse yet luxuriant items of furniture, fashion and objects suggest a Trump Tower world, and easily explains away Jack O’Connell’s tattoos, which many men of his age have today. The cast also use mobile phones and iPods; it works surprisingly well, but also raises other issues- surely Maggie and Brick could satisfy their carnal needs via online dating apps? There is a shower on stage, and here O’Connell spends most of the first act showering , limping round the set just wrapped in a towel. (Brick has broken his ankle). Future gender studies academics may write about the fetishization of his body marking a shift in the female gaze, but here, as it is not fully justified textually, it’s just plain distracting. O’Connell broods very well, and plays disengagement from his surroundings perfectly, but it’s only when he finally puts on his pyjamas that he truly becomes charismatic. Maggie is a huge challenge for any actress, the first act basically an expositional monologue for much of it, especially the first forty minutes. It requires acting of great depth, but unfortunately Sienna Miller plays it all on one note, and never really finds the depth of Maggie’s despair and manipulation. She also rushes through her lines as if it’s still a memory test, and her Southern accent somewhat wobbles, in fact several cast members would have benefitted from the update relocating the action.
But if Act One feels a bit like Hollyoaks doing the Deep South, the rewards arrive in the second half, mainly in the shape of the excellent Colm Meaney as Big Daddy, a bear of a part given supurb desperate machismo by Meaney as he is confronted with the truth that his diagnosis of a spastic colon is a lie and he has stomach cancer. Here O’Connell finally has someone to act against, and the long duologue between Brick and Big Daddy, a huge confrontation about masculinity, machismo, homophobia, disgust and self denial, is superbly played out as Fireworks explode to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. (Excellent lighting design by Jon Clarke.) In fact, they all raise their game to match Meaney, with Hayley Squires and Brian Gleeson particularly effective as the manipulative ‘breeders’ Mae and Gooper, and Lisa Palfrey a fine Big Mama, funny and also vulnerable.
The whole production is pulled back from the brink in the second half, and the click, (the click that Brink seeks until he gets and feels right), does finally arrive for the audience. If the first half problems could be sorted out, this could be one of the best productions on the West End. As it is, it is saved from the jaws of disaster by a mighty Big Daddy.