Tag Archives: American Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Apollo Theatre

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Apollo Theatre

You may not have enjoyed the recent heatwave, perhaps it made you more irritable, exhausted or frustrated than usual. Maybe in the soup-like humidity you found it harder to maintain your poise or to be diplomatic, and as the temperatures soared you started offering up some harsh truths or long held family secrets that could no longer be contained. This is, then, apt timing for a revival of one of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and beloved plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which, like much of his work, uses the intense heat of the American South to unveil the greed, fear, loneliness and passionate rivalries in one very broken family.

And for the second time this year, a production tackles a role made famous on film by Elizabeth Taylor; Imelda Staunton made the role of Martha decisively her own in James MacDonald’s very successful version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the spring, and now Sienna Miller gives her take on Maggie Pollitt in Benedict Andrews’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, played by Taylor in the glorious 1958 film, which has its press night today.

Set at the Pollitt plantation villa, Big Daddy is celebrating his 65th birthday with a family party attended by his two sons, their wives and children, having just been told untruly that he’s cancer free. But his athletic son Brick, a former-sports announcer and football star, is an alcoholic living reluctantly with cheating wife Maggie who’s desperate to win back his affection, while taunted about her childlessness by her brother-in-law’s 5 cheeky offspring and grasping wife Mae. Brick has broken his leg drunkenly jumping hurdles and on the night of the party, the deep rift in the family cracks open and hard truths come pouring out.

Williams’s play is a masterpiece, revealing the layers of deception and outright lies we tell ourselves and our families about our lives, as his characters are forced to really see themselves for the first time. Apart from Brick who has entirely given up, choosing alcohol over suicide, every other character should feel like they’re fighting for their lives all the time. Gooper, the overlooked and unloved son, and his wife Mae want to secure their inheritance having delivered plentiful heirs and suffered years of being second best; Big Daddy is straining to regain control of his empire having ceded authority during his illness while his wife Big Mama struggles to keep his attention. And then there’s Maggie, scrappy and determined, almost shameless in her desire to win control of her husband, stopping at nothing to restore the future she desires for them, which of course includes their fair share of the money.

Benedict Andrews has chosen a modern-setting and you can see the cast and crew have worked hard to put considerable distance between their interpretation and the famous film. There has been a noticeable move to free classic plays from their traditional period setting in the last few years, and when done well as with Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler, or Andrews’s own A Streetcar Named Desire, it brings the audience closer to the emotional heart of the play, and there’s nothing better than seeing something you know well in an entirely new light.

This version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to do a number of things but its overall effect is only partially successful. The modern setting is fine but while Magda Willi’s design is striking, it does slightly impede the action. Maggie and Brick’s sparse bedroom on a raised central dais certainly reflects the current emptiness of their marriage, and is surrounded by 3 corridor spaces with gold floor panels and a mirrored tin back wall (see what they did there?). The idea is to present the monied but slightly tasteless lives of the Pollitt family, rich but ultimately hollow, with the tin wall distortedly reflecting the gold floor and the characters to emphasise the warped emptiness of their lives. Combined with Alice Babidge’s expensive but tacky costumes, the visual aesthetic is a sort of trashy Dallas.

But much of Williams’s play depends upon characters inopportunely interrupting meaningful conversations or heading onto the veranda to escape the stifling interior in search of a cooling breeze. Willi’s set reflects some of the play’s themes but it doesn’t create that feel of overwhelming heat, or convincingly suggest that there are other rooms beyond the one we see. Using just a neon frame as the rear wall of Maggie and Brick’s room, characters come and go from various ‘doors’ we cannot see but in the surrounding openness you don’t get the sense of covert eavesdropping and deception that is part of the fabric of the play. The vastness of the set has an echo that makes it seem more like an enclosed vault than part of a wider house wilting in the muggy climate of the South.

And there is a sense throughout that the show hasn’t quite utilised the huge potential in Williams’s story, as though you’re seeing a bit of a wider picture. The central relationship between Maggie and Brick is the most important aspect and there is a central ambiguity about their feeling for one another that runs through the play, creating a will-they won’t-they tension that keeps the audience invested. But here that ambiguity is largely swept aside and instead focuses on Brick’s instance that their marriage is over. While it does give a harder edge to the performances and in some ways a fresh insight, it also divests their relationship of much of its heat, and like the set, makes it harder to believe that they exist beyond this room with a past and a future.

It’s important to stress that these are production decisions and not necessarily down to the performances. It’s clear that they want to offer a new interpretation and there are lots of great moments and interesting approaches that make you think twice, but the joy of Williams’s plays is the complexity of human experience that they offer and the way that unfolds in moments of extreme pressure under certain climatic conditions. Take some of those layers away and it just doesn’t quite ring true.

One of the most surprising and successful choices is to make Maggie a more grasping figure than often seen. Married into money Sienna Miller’s once poor Maggie talks rapidly and shamelessly to fill the huge void between her and Brick. Words run on and stories overlap with current family observations which Miller handles well in a first Act in which she has almost all the lines. This Maggie is not a sophisticated figure, but instead has a redneck-made-good quality, constantly betraying her origins in her stance and love of gossipy one-upmanship. Miller is an actor whose performances come with considerable expectation largely based on her private life, and while her accent is initially a little thick it becomes more settled as the show progresses, turning in a thoughtful and intriguing performance.

She’s determined to lure Brick back into her bed but it’s not clear whether this is for love or a possessiveness that will lead to her share of Big Daddy’s money. Miller’s Maggie certainly puts up a good fight, but in steering clear of Taylor, the show sacrifices Maggie’s sensuality and romance which dilutes the relationship with Brick and prevents any proper sympathy for her. It’s a rather cold seduction. Jack O’Connell initially gives little back as the detached Brick, worthy of his name. He is an oblique presence, purposefully excised from those around him with no desire for anything but drink.

O’Connell has some excellent moments in conversation with Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy in Act Two where Brick’s resolve is finally broken releasing a torrent of anger and self-abasement that hints at the impact this performance could have had elsewhere in the production,  but the decision to make him impassive in the face of Maggie’s various attempts to provoke and allure him make it so much harder to really understand his purpose, and while O’Connell delivers a kind of nothingness, shutting down every avenue of reconciliation also leaves him nowhere to go in the rest of the production.

If Brick has no interest in Maggie then the psychology of their continued co-existence makes no sense, why wouldn’t he just leave her – a problem this production cannot resolve – and it prevents the growth of any sexual charge between them. A mistake this production makes repeatedly is in presenting both actors fully nude in several scenes (mostly O’Connell but occasionally Miller) in order to imply an eroticism that just doesn’t exist and O’Connell, hobbling on one crutch, is hampered by a towel he constantly has to re-tie during Act One, which could be easily resolved with some discrete Velcro. While fans may be delighted at the chance to see their idols in the raw, theatrically it serves no purpose without the character intent to support it – nudity is no substitute for chemistry.

There are great performances from the supporting cast which more successfully escape their screen incarnations. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy is a cruel and wearied figure, worn down by the constant disappointments of his family and frustration with the pointlessness of his wife. There’s genuine heartache for Lisa Palfrey’s tarty Big Mama whose natural bubbliness is deflated by the abusive bitterness of her husband. Hayley Squires gives Mae a protective family instinct with a tendency to catty competition with Maggie which is often quite funny, while Brian Gleeson’s Gooper makes the most of his one attempt to take control.

This is by no means a terrible production, there are plenty of good ideas, an attempt to present a new version of the play, and some genuinely insightful moments, but it’s not as good as it could be. This focus on the brash hardness that the lack of love creates in people rides roughshod over the moments of tenderness and intimacy in Williams’s writing that make his work so powerful. A large West End stage feels wrong for it and perhaps in the Young Vic’s more intimate space this could work a little better – especially where £35 will buy you one of the best views rather than a Grand Circle seat where you have to crane round people’s heads to see properly.

It needs that sense of a family living too close to each other, of a heatwave that drives its characters to extremes and a central couple whose passion for one another teeters constantly on the edge of love and hate. Benedict Andrews’s almost clinical production needs fire, and although it wants to distance you from the famous film, Newman and Taylor hang heavy over this production. That Tin Roof needs to be much hotter.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October. Tickets start at £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @cultralcap1


No Villain – Trafalgar Studios

No Villain - Trafalgar Studios by Cameron Harle

Arthur Miller could easily be considered America’s greatest twentieth-century playwright were it not for the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, contemporaries of Miller, who arguably also deserve that accolade. Miller though has rarely been out of fashion and his plays that so often focus on working men and the problems of industry have struck a particular chord in London’s West End in our current age of austerity. It would be too simplistic to see the almost outrageous success of the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge – which earned a shed-load of UK awards before adding more at the most recent Tony’s on Broadway and some days I might even admit it was best thing I’d ever seen in the West End – as the cause of a fresh round of Miller-mania but with high profile versions of classics The Crucible at the Old Vic, and the RSC’s Death of Salesman, the appetite for Miller’s work is as strong as ever.

Wonderful then to be offered something entirely new. While rooting around in the archives of the University of Michigan, director Sean Turner unearthed Miller’s very first play written in 1936 when he was at College thrown together in just six days. Not performed for 80 years, No Villain was created solely to win a cash prize to allow Miller to continue with his studies, and duly awarded the play was cast aside. It received its premiere at the Old Red Lion theatre in Angel earlier this year before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios for the next couple of months.

An undiscovered play is like a treasure trove for theatre lovers, one that hints at the genius to come while telling us much more about the author’s process, idea formation and route to success. No Villain is the story of the Simon family and in what would become a commonplace model for Miller, it is concerned with the relationship between a father and his two sons, one doing all the work while the other is the favourite. There’s industrial unrest at the factory preventing the Simons from shipping their fur coats to buyers and Miller’s early flirtation with concepts of Communism are used to amplify both the generational gap between the managerial father and his worker sons, as well as dividing the brothers as Arnie’s intellectualism is pitted against Ben’s practical application of Communist principles at work.

But the play opens with domestic concerns as the family sit around late one night waiting for Arnie to return home from College. He’s told his mother Esther he’ll get the bus or hitch-hike aiming to be home around 11.30pm, but being of a somewhat hysterical nature her anxiety increases with every minute and begins to work herself and her family to a pitch of agitation. Nesba Crenshaw makes Esther permanently panic-stricken and constantly on edge, so even after her family is reunited we see the endless worry about factory finances, her husband’s ability to cope and her ailing father who’s come to stay. Her lot in life is to worry about men while never fully cutting the apron strings for her sons – she seems to have no concern at all for her teenage daughter – and this leads to considerable moments of tension and frustration for them as she pesters and nags them until they crave peace elsewhere.

Patriarch Abe Simon feels like an early draft of Miller’s famous salesman Willy Lowman and the relationship with his sons is similar fraught. Like his wife, Abe is afraid of the future, of progress and even technology which the thread of Communism seems to imply. Part of that fear comes from knowing his business was already ailing before the strike amplified his difficulties and that a time is coming when he will be replaced by a younger generation. In David Bromley’s performance we see that Abe relies heavily on his son Ben who seems the only one capable of practical action, even needing him to work the telephone for him, yet at the same time Bromley shows us Abe’s fear of his children, of their new world view and growing inability to control them. Miller was fascinated by father-son relationships and this one helps us to see that the transition from child to adult is a difficult one for a father to oversee as the son begins to excel and surpass his parent.

George Turvey is excellent as the world-weary Ben trying to balance filial duty with his belief in his greater business sense and the knowledge that the family prefer his brother Arnie. We’re given hints that Ben too was at College once, although whether he completed his studies or sacrificed them to join the family business as his dad wishes is unclear. Turvey’s Ben is also engaged in a constant battle – much like his mother – shouldering both the primary burden of the flailing business as he negotiates with banks and suppliers to save his father from the truth, but also acting a crutch for the family, often taking the lead on decision-making and calming the worries of his more emotional parents. But Ben is also kind and we hear not only of his sympathy for the workers but, in a throw-away moment, his attempts to pay them during the strike, showing that while his family cling avidly to every last inch of the past, Ben is bravely accepting and almost welcoming of a different future.

The rest of the characters are a little thinner and as you could expect from such an early work, Miller’s inexperience is most obvious here. Arnie played engagingly by Alex Forsyth keeps everyone waiting for some time at the start, building up an idea of his importance to the story that is never properly realised. He makes for a great contrast with his brother – brain against brawn – but never feels anything more than a pen sketch of something that should be much deeper given how other characters refer to him. There is a daughter Maxine whose minor appearances involve giggling, being indulged by her father and being sent to another room, and a resident Jewish grandparent who adds to the crush in the Simon household but Miller doesn’t use this third generation to make any further points about changing expectations of masculinity or even the challenges of their faith.

No Villain is understandably a tad incomplete as a play but this production nonetheless proves to be an engaging and insightful 80 minutes. While Miller’s early attempt to blend politics and domestic drama are somewhat cruder than his later work, the genesis of his approach to playwriting and the formation of idea and character are fascinating. Turner’s vision of a family in decline and the economic effects of the Depression Era are not only brilliantly realised but couldn’t be more timely. As a result of the recent referendum, the UK is now on the edge of its own precipice and the as yet unknown consequences will be felt for many years to come. In this context, the staging of Miller’s first play feels astonishingly relevant.

No Villain is at the Trafalgar Studios until 23 July. Tickets are £15-£30. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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