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The Theatreguide.London Review

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Lyric Theatre            Winter 2001-02

Tennessee Williams' 1955 play represents the playwright at almost his very best, which means that it contains some of the richest writing in the American theatre.

This production has a truly brilliant performance in one featured role and a very interesting one in another. And that may very well be enough to recommend it, despite some serious flaws.

This is the one set in a Southern plantation, where the dying father is trying to decide which of his two sons to leave everything to, the successful lawyer he hates, or the drunken ex-athlete he loves. Meanwhile, the drunk's wife is fighting to redeem her husband, save her marriage and get the inheritance.

The first act, an almost uninterrupted monologue by the wife, is a harrowing study in desperation and determination; while the second, a painful conversation between father and son, contains some of Williams' finest dramatic poetry.

(Digression: Williams fans will know that he wrote three versions of Act Three, not counting the film, which was completely different. This production uses the 'Broadway version', the most upbeat of the three.)

The brilliant performance, worth the price of a ticket itself, is by Ned Beatty as Big Daddy.

Beatty, hitherto a reliable but unexciting journeyman character actor in films, rises to the best performance of his life, as the best Big Daddy I've ever seen.

Alone among the cast, he creates a real human being, an uneducated redneck who's never had to think or feel (or even talk) much in his life, now struggling with the discovery of his own capacity for thought and for love, and with the need to communicate them.

While some others in the cast recite their lines, almost like bad Shakespearean actors, Beatty makes every word sound as if it was thought of just that moment, and thus takes us through the living experience of his character.

And, unlike Burl Ives in the original and the film, or any of the other actors I've seen in the role, he shows Big Daddy's uncertainties and limitations, and the real struggle he must go through to try to reach out to his son.

As the alcoholic Brick, film star Brendan Fraser is the main draw of this production, and he has clearly worked very hard at finding his way into the character.

Brick spends most of the play drinking, and Fraser is the first actor I've seen with the courage to play him as actually drunk, rather than just poetically distant.

He's slow starting, and doesn't give his wife much to bounce off in Act One, but the scene in which he tries to explain to his father why he drinks really soars, both dramatically and poetically.

Fraser also gets Brick's psychology absolutely right, seeing and effectively conveying that the root of his problem -- it all has to do with a dead friend and the nature of their relationship -- is not (as some lazy actors would make it) repressed homosexuality, but rather crippling homophobia that made him betray the friendship.

But then, at the play's centre, is a gaping hole called Frances O'Connor.

Playing Brick's wife, Maggie the cat, O'Connor is appropriately beautiful, but unable to find any of the character's depth or reality.

Sounding sometimes like a nagging Italian wife out of The Sopranos, she spends the entire play on one unwaveringly shrill note, racing through her speeches so they constantly threaten to lapse into incomprehensible gabble, and never letting us past the shell of Maggie's high desperation.

To be fair, as I noted earlier, Fraser doesn't give her much help in the crucial first act; but the character we should most be empathising with and hoping for remains a distant and generally unattractive figure.

And as Big Mama, the usually reliable Gemma Jones (dressed and padded like a panto dame) gives one of the laziest performances I've ever seen in a professional actor, visibly turning off and going dead behind the eyes the minute she stops talking, until her next cue brings her briefly back in character.

Director Anthony Page must accept some of both the credit and the blame for these performances, as well as for some rather clumsy mechanical things, like offstage voices and an over-enthusiastic thunderstorm. This is far from the best production of the play that I've encountered, but the two central male performances still make it worth seeing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - Lyric Theatre 2001

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