The March bill at the Citizens nods astutely towards the canon of modern classics, a contemporary mainstream phenomenon and the fevered political climate by presenting, respectively, Tennessee Williams's Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Argentine expatriate Copi's Eva Peron and Widowers' Houses by George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw's first play is disquietingly trenchant, dealing as it does with the morality of living off the proceeds of slum landlordism and compulsory-purchase compensation. The complacent dinner-jacketed justifications – that the rackets in question provide a service for the poor, and that if the gentlemen concerned did not do so, more unscrupulous types would – have not developed in the century since the work's composition. In Giles Havergal's production, the issue leads to little full-blooded anguish; matters are by and large discussed within the limited bandwidth of patrician niceties, and are all the more unsettling for it. The staging takes place in a limbo embracing both the conventions of moneyed Victorians abroad (linen suits and Baedekers) and the modern day (the Baedeker is a current edition, one of the characters wears Bono sunglasses above his frock-coat). A play which feels as if it ought to occupy the theatre's main stage nevertheless fits excellently into the Stalls Studio.
Early in Widowers' Houses, a noise like a thunderstorm breaks overhead. It turns out to be a torrent of flamenco steps practised in front of a mirror by Eva Peron's preening brother in the Circle Studio. Copi's hour-long play would resemble Evita only if the latter movie had been directed by Ken Russell at his wildest: a foul-mouthed Eva, attended by a transvestite nurse in leg calipers, plays her family off against one another in the presidential palace whilst orchestrating her final departure. Kenny Miller's cast are made up with magnificent grotesquerie: brother Juancito sports a bright orange fake tan, Peron himself has eyes so sunken that it appears a bat has settled upon his face. The overall aesthetic, thankfully, is less Lloyd Webber than early Roxy Music.
Such exaggerated colour seems to bleed into Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at one or two points: Gooper appears in a ludicrous pair of pantomime-tiger pants, and Ellen Sheean's Big Mama wears the kind of sequinned outfit that leads one to fear an imminent chorus of "Stand By Your Man". Otherwise, though, Philip Prowse concentrates on racking up the languid Mississippi tension; pitches and volumes vary, but not the pace of stagnant family affairs.
As Brick, Mark Bazeley gives a tightly controlled performance which
quietly commands even when head to head against Robert David MacDonald's
rumbling Big Daddy, and effortlessly dominates Julie Saunders, who makes
all the right moves as Maggie but never quite clicks into the role. (Awkward
though it may be to note, Prowse also teeters at the limits of "colour-blind"
casting in having Maggie, outsider as she is in the family circle, played
by a black woman; the connotations in a Tennessee Williams play – one which
includes the phrase "worked like a nigger" – verge on the seriously problematic.)
It is easy, especially in the wake of the bowdlerised film version, to forget the power which Cat On A Hot Tin Roof can muster. Prowse largely eschews the melodramatic aspect of Williams's writing in this undemonstratively potent production.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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