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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


Love in Idleness – The Apollo Theatre

Love in Idleness - Eve Best & Anthony Head

One of the hardest things for any child to learn is that their mum is an entirely separate person, that they have their own thoughts, their own life and their own needs outside their role as a parent. Discovering that is part of the transition to adulthood, and understanding that your mother is not just protector and provider but has emotional depths, plans and wants that you may never have seen as a child, transforms the relationship. Becoming more like equals is part of growing up and it’s something that Terrence Rattigan explores in his Second World War comedy Love in Idleness that considers the seemingly modern concepts of second marriage, blended family and a teenager coming to turns with his mother’s human needs.

Once dismissed as staid and old-fashioned three or four act drawing-room melodramas about rich middle England, Rattigan’s work has the kind of emotional truth that continues to resonate with modern audiences, and since the Rattigan centenary in 2011, his plays have become a more regular feature on the London stage. However frivolous or occasionally farcical his characters, like all good comedy writers before and since, there is always a streak of deeply felt pain, particularly at the unevenness of love, that runs through his work and allows him to switch from light to dark in an instant. It’s a technique he uses sparingly in Love in Idleness, transferring from the Menier to the Apollo, but opens-up the heart of the characters quite suddenly.

In most fiction, we’re given a rose-tinted view of love with two people caring for each other equally, whereas, in reality, one person usually loves more than the other, and this is something Rattigan’s plays are often concerned with. Last year’s beautiful production of The Deep Blue Sea at the National is a perfect example and while Helen McCrory’s Hester was shamefully overlooked by the Olivier panel – it should have been a straight fight been her and eventual winner Billie Piper as the only two genuinely luminous performances that season – it was a perfect study of a couple whose relationship is doomed because Freddie cannot begin to match Hester’s consuming love.

In Love in Idleness the tragedy is that the central couple – Olivia and Sir John – are perfectly matched but another kind of love, that for her son Michael, challenges the sustainability of their relationship. At the start of the play dentist’s widow Olivia Brown is ensconced as the mistress of Sir John in a well-to-do apartment, but far from ‘living in sin’ the couple are respectably accepted by society and Olivia is wife in all but name. Into this domestic idyll comes her son Michael, back from school in Canada, who resents his mother’s change of circumstances and is even more disgusted to learn she is involved with Sir John, a cabinet member of whom Michael disapproves. During the course of four acts this left-leaning young man attempts to come between them, by shaming his mother and restoring her mere parental role in his life.

Trevor Nunn, whose production of Flare Path reignited our passion for Rattigan, takes a traditional approach to staging this early comedy but mixes an earlier draft of the play with what later became Love in Idleness. The result is a comic battle not just between son and lover, but also between high society ideals, consumerism and the love of life’s comforts, and the socialist enthusiasm of youth as Michael battles against a “business-as-usual” post-war future. Although it takes about 15 minutes to get going, these concepts are well handled in Nunn’s interpretation, and once the production is on its feet, it is entertaining and engaging throughout its 2 hr and 45-minute run time.

I have to confess to an initial bout of dispirit as the curtain went up to reveal yet another 1940s-middle class drawing room set with lovely sofas for which the phrase ‘elegantly appointed’ was designed. And while I don’t subscribe to the idea that the content of Rattigan or even Noel Coward’s plays are dated, sometimes the staging can give that impression – although the National neatly overcame that problem last year. We are spoiled in London by the funds and freedom to innovate, but directors like Ivo van Hove and Jaime Lloyd are throwing out the rule book on staging the classics, so how fascinating would it be to see a stripped back version of these plays – no cornices, no rugs and absolutely no artfully arranged furniture – just the pure emotional drive of the text itself and the excellence of the actors in bringing it to life.

However, Rattigan’s writing is far too clever to be oppressed by the set, designed by Stephen Brimson-Lewis, and as the production wears on you see the story and its themes fight successfully against the underwhelming presentation; here we have ideas about how closely big business should be involved in government, a situation played out daily in American politics, there are ideas about defining middle age and its expectations, of changing attitudes to sex and marriage, of different kinds of families emerging, of young people trying to understand the world and find their place in it, and the ongoing effects of war on everyday society. These things trouble us as much now as they did in the 1940s and it is this that makes Rattigan’s work so relevant – because human behaviour doesn’t change, people still need to find and cling to the people they love, and that will always come at a cost.

Rattigan wrote female characters so well and in the lead role Eve Best skilfully explores the mixture of contradictions, pride and parental affection that make-up Olivia Brown. Her first appearance in party-planning mode is almost overwhelming as she trills enthusiastically on the telephone and seems persuasively in command of everyone around her. At this pitch, she would be unbearable if the whole play was the same, but the arrival of Olivia’s son gives Best a chance to explore the ways in which this challenges her happy life, as she charts the genuinely touching demise of Olivia’s hopes.

In some ways, she’s a character who lives on the surface, at one point openly admitting that her love for John is also bound-up with the trappings and comforts of the life he offers, but, crucially, Rattigan wants us to see that this love is no less valid and brings her a happiness and contentment she has never known before. Best conveys all of this superbly moving effortlessly between a woman who cannot keep up with the intellectual pursuits of her menfolk, and one resignedly broken by the decisions she is forced to make, sacrificing herself for others. The scene in which she begins determined to make one decision and ends up making quite another is flooring in its raw and unexpected emotion, and Best is superb in showing the audience the cost in that moment.

Anthony Head as the Canadian businessman-turned-politician may have a variable accent (sometimes Canadian, sometimes Irish) but he brings a gravitas to the role which makes him a suitably commanding figure. Challenged, but not threatened, by the arrival of Michael, John bites his tongue frequently and Head conveys the awkwardness of being around someone with whom he has nothing in common but must “play nice” for the sake of his relationship. The scenes in which he and Michael let loose over politics are among the best and most comedic, as two unlikely opponents square-off against each other. While the depth of Sir John’s feelings for Olivia were always clear, they are genuinely touching in the final act as the extent of his actions is revealed.

In the slightly more difficult role of surly teenager, Edward Bluemel has to blend lots of purposely exaggerated huffing and puffing – accused in the text of giving his Hamlet – with a little boy lost routine that sees his cherished memories of his childhood slowly dismantled over the course of the play. And to all this Bluemel adds the self-conscious arrogance of politicised youth that seems so certain and so naïve at the same time. It’s a great comic performance that gives way to occasional moments of almost hysterical feeling as Michael goes through the awkward process of seeing and accepting Olivia as someone other than just his mother, and having to entirely reconfigure his relationship with her.

Although Love in Idleness may look like another tired old drama about rich people living in shabby gentility, don’t let that deter you from seeing it. Rattigan’s writing about the complexities of the human heart and the pain it causes us, is still incredibly poignant. Although not his best play, many of the themes that recur in his work germinate here as his characters struggle to find their place, trapped between a national and personal past and future. As Olivia faces an impossible dilemma between lover and son, she might make you think about our own mothers and the unreasonable demands that grown-up children make of them, asking them to stay just our we want them instead of who they really are.

Love in Idleness is at the Apollo Theatre until 1 July. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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