When director Benedict Andrews last took on Tennessee Williams back in 2014, his production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Gillian Anderson and demand for tickets almost sent the Young Vic’s website into meltdown. Anderson deservedly won an Evening Standard award and the play transferred to New York. No wonder this show has gone straight to the West End.
As with Streetcar, Andrews has updated the setting, with mobile phones and iPads in evidence while the action is played out on a minimal set surrounded by a cyclorama of what looks like burnished copper, with only basic props to suggest the interior of a Mississippi mansion. It’s certainly visually striking but it’s like the play is being performed inside a giant tin can. In fact, it’s so vast you struggle to hear some of the actors when they move upstage.
Fortunately, none of this detracts from the emotional intensity of Williams’ play about the dysfunctional family of terminally ill millionaire plantation owner Big Daddy (Colm Meaney). When they assemble to celebrate the old man’s birthday, all they’re really interested in is securing their share of the spoils when Big Daddy dies, but their machinations are complicated by the fact that the true nature of his illness is known to only a few.
Against this background, favourite son and former sports golden boy, Brick (Jack O’Connell), is determined to drink himself into a stupor as he struggles with his sexuality in the wake of his best friend Skipper’s death. For some reason, O’Connell spends the play either naked or scantily clad, possibly to show how he yearns to cleanse himself of guilt, or possibly because nudity in the West End is still guaranteed to cause a stir and pull in a few more punters.
Jack O’Connell and Sienna Miller as Brick and Maggie (photographs by Johan Persson)
The first act is largely a monologue from his wife Maggie (Sienna Miller), who desperately wants children and employs all her feminine wiles to sting Brick into fulfilling his marital obligations, from trying to be alluring by prowling the floor half-naked like the cat of the title, to taunting him for his lack of sexual prowess.
All the while, Brick remains largely silent: he’s a coiled spring of frustration and self-loathing who can only find solace in the bottom of a bottle. When he is finally driven too far by the wife he now detests, his outburst of violence is all the more potent.
Meanwhile, Miller is every inch the femme fatale. Her accent is a little shaky at first, but she oozes sexuality and the cunning that a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks has needed to marry into a wealthy family.
Meaney is as reliable as ever and there are nice turns from Lisa Palfrey as Big Mamma, who can see no wrong in her golden boy Brick, and Hayley Squires who is outstanding as the other daughter-in-law Mae, who is determined to use any means to secure what she believes she and her husband are owed.
This production isn’t perfect and is too stylised for my taste, but it still packs a powerful emotional punch.
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 October