Tennessee Williams’ once rejected the idea of the “straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice cubes”. Here, director Benedict Andrews plonks a whole great sack of them at the front of the stage, next to four bottles of whisky.
It’s not exactly straight realism, then, but nor is it a total rejection of that. This extends to his whole production, which has its heightened, stylised moments without Andrews ever really committing to any distinctive approach or aesthetic for the play. A Young Vic production going straight to the West End, it fails to unlock Williams’ circular conversations, leaving the starry leads – Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell – rather exposed.
This is a present-day Cat, everyone gathered for a family party in gaudy sequined party dresses, music on the iPad; the bedroom furniture is of modish black wood with black satin sheets. It’s a vulgarly modern milieu, and one where women are still valued for their appearance and their child-producing ability.
Actually, this works: Williams’ 1955 play, set on a plantation on the Mississippi Delta, updates surprisingly easily, offering a vision of present-day macho America where male dominance is fragile. The men are in denial: alcoholic Brick won’t sleep with his ravenous wife Maggie, but vehemently denies any sexual feelings for his dead friend Skipper; his father Big Daddy brutishly attempts to reassert his control over the women of the house, refusing to face the fact he’s dying of cancer. As for women, the catty swipes about childlessness feel depressingly at-home in 2017.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a long wordy play of misfiring discussions about tortured sexual impulses and power struggles over family inheritance. To work, it needs electricity, a shock of brutal humour; this too often drags.
Magda Willi’s set has impact: the bedroom is a sloping platform in front of a high wall of golden metal panels, gorgeously lit by Jon Clark. But if the production’s going for a sorta stylised take, why worry so much about the Southern accents? These hamper almost everyone onstage and get in the way, a barrier to the truth of the lines. Or maybe that’s being generous.
The first scene, a challenging one admittedly, with Maggie having an in-depth conversation pretty much with herself, is painful here: Miller’s accent may swoop, but the entire first half feels one-note, her part rattled through. She skates over the lines, rather than pouncing on meaning, while O’Connell gives her nothing to work with. Sure, Brick is taciturn, depressed, distant… but this is just very dry. And that despite lashings of nudity: yes, both these attractive film stars “dare to bare”, going full-frontal; no, it isn’t particularly brave and no, it isn’t really necessary.
Things warm up in the second half, the interplay with the wider family bringing more variation and nuance, and O’Connell finding anguished depth as Brick gets drunker and drunker. There are also some arresting moments when you feel like Andrews remembered he was free to do something other than just have people talk to each other. I rather liked the lurking, ominous centre stage birthday cake, candles slowly burning down, while the toy gun-toting bratty children in brash gold outfits felt more disruptive than that description makes them sound. There’s a brilliant, shuddering moment as booming fireworks go off just as Big Daddy (an excellent Colm Meaney) faces his mortality, which had a quaking power against the high brassy backdrop.
But one firework does not a crackling production make, and too often this show simply fails to ignite.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October.