The London stage is growing accustomed to being trodden by international movie stars these days, but even so, Bill Kenwright's production of Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Lyric Theatre boasts an impressive clutch of names: Brendan Fraser as Brick, the former college football player who has turned to drink to escape the "mendacity" he sees around him, not least in his own marriage; Frances O'Connor, soon to be seen in Steven Spielberg's AI, as Brick's wife Maggie, tormented on the one hand by Brick's refusal (or inability) to sleep with her and on the other by family politicking; and the venerable Ned Beatty as Big Daddy, the Deep South patriarch whose succession is being contested before he even knows he is dying.
It could have been a production in which these actors draw applause simply for being here; under Anthony Page's direction, it is considerably more. Beatty's Big Daddy is neither as physically imposing nor as boomingly tyrannical as many, but nevertheless exudes an air of incontestable power; this is in turn revealed during his excellent second-act duologue with Brick to be simply Big Daddy's way of coping with the world – he works from the outside in. English-born, Australian-raised O'Connor skilfully avoids the twin traps of making Maggie's temperament towards Brick either hectoring or begging: she just keeps talking, and although sometimes unfortunate remarks slip out, this is by and large her way of concealing rather than indulging her pain.
For me, Fraser is the biggest and most pleasant surprise. His screen appearances have seemed to me efficient but hardly extraordinary. On stage as Brick, Fraser's approach is revealed to be one of precise economy and superfine judgement. He combines some beautifully graded drunk-acting with an understated rendering of Brick's detachment from the goings-on around him; indeed, it is only during Brick's one or two emotional explosions that Fraser may momentarily lose his footing - no pun intended: he also makes thoughtful, unobtrusive use of the broken-ankled Brick's crutch.
The stars are matched by Gemma Jones's Big Mama, a woman who strives to match her husband's effortless force of personality but is more used to inneffectual bustle and vacillation, a supplicant to Big Daddy in exactly the way O'Connor's Maggie (who sees herself as the cat of the title) isn't to Brick. A trio of winsome, and indeed wincesome, children, deliberately evoke quite the same response in the audience as in Maggie: we could quite happily wring their necks if only they had any. Page's production captures both the allure of the easy lie and the discomfort it brings of its own to counterbalance the unease of the truth.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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