Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Willams

Lyric

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

The producers made a very brave decision in deciding to bring three major Hollywood actors to London for this revival of one of Tennessee Williams' most famous plays. Judging by the size of an audience on a Tuesday night late in the run, it should be paying off for them. Despite the disaster in New York that has hit theatre audiences both sides of the Atlantic so hard, the theatre was very well attended.

The first act consists of a dialogue between the very passionate Maggie, played excellently by Frances O'Connor, and her seemingly cold husband, Brick, a retired football player turned drunken sports announcer. The former George of the Jungle, Brendan Fraser, broods a great deal and takes every opportunity to show off his left profile like a figurehead on a ship. While O'Connor begs and wheedles for his love, he remains completely impassive even when telling her that he hates her.

The play develops as other characters appear. Ned Beatty, the star of more than 60 major American films, plays the role of Big Daddy, the ageing nouveau riche patriarch of the family. Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, he is an odd series of contradictions with snap changes of mood the norm. His wife, Big Mama, played by Gemma Jones with a foghorn voice, often seems completely bemused not only by his behaviour but by that of all of the other characters too.

Perhaps the pivotal scene in this production is the one in which father and son meet and some serious home truths are revealed. Brendan Fraser begins to come into his own, as Brick gets drunker and is brilliantly psychoanalysed by his seemingly hard, but surprisingly sensitive redneck father. In turn, the strength of Ned Beatty's performance is shown as Brick blurts out the secret that was being hidden from Big Daddy.

The third and most entertaining act brings various minor characters onto the stage, particularly the rather sickening other son and daughter-in-law, Gooper and Mae. Unfortunately, while director Anthony Page shows some wonderful touches in producing good performances from his major actors, he allows the others to give performances that are heavily caricatured and close to farce. This is a shame as his characterisation is good, particularly that of Maggie, often seen patting her barren stomach and Brick who while remaining stolid begins to lose his temper and to become human.

One of the pleasures of this play is Williams' use of language. Not only do we have the wonderful family nicknames such as Big Daddy and Brotherman but there are also excellent very visual descriptions. For example, in describing her nephews and nieces, Maggie uses the terms "no neck monsters" and "four dogs and a parrot".

Maria Bjornson's set, which shows the lavish bedroom of Maggie and Brick, is particularly meaningful as almost every surface whether wall or piece of furniture is holed. This is greatly symbolic, both of the inability of any member of the family to keep a secret and also of their great insecurity.

A minor quibble with the producers is their desire to bring the final curtain down as close to 11:00pm as possible. In their efforts to do so, they rushed the audience back into the theatre after each interval and turned the house lights down while many were still scrabbling for their seats. For the sake of a few seconds, it may have been better to allow the theatregoers the chance to maintain their dignity.

This should not be allowed to spoil what is otherwise an enjoyable evening and clearly for many members of the audience the opportunity to see major Hollywood stars in the flesh, generally performing well was too good to miss.