Money can’t buy you class. Australian director Benedict Andrews gives Tennessee Williams’ inheritance drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” a twist for the Trump era: Gone are the cream suits and vintage petticoats of old; in come white dinner jackets, black satin sheets and more sequins than a RuPaul convention. Yet this glitzy, starry West End staging – the Young Vic’s first foray straight into town, featuring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell – suffers from the same issue. Miller provides little more than pulling power and, for all the flash visuals, Andrews just can’t get the old “Cat” jumping.
It’s curious. The ideas are all there, and they’re couched in sharp visual metaphors; the play’s component parts – sex, drink and death – are mostly pushed to the max; a characterful cast is left to lock horns on an empty stage. And yet, the damn thing just won’t start. Even at his best, Williams can be a bit of a windbag, and when his plays aren’t wound tight, they tend to deflate. So it is here. Running more than two and a half hours — longer than the old Elizabeth Taylor/Paul Newman movie — there are points where it slows to a trudge. Maybe “Cat” is starting to creak a little: repetitive, overemphatic and, in the end, contrived.
Andrews does his all to modernize it. Magda Willi’s design strips out the setting – that old Southern comfort – and puts the play on a black velvet stage. Behind it, a vast vault-like gold wall stretches up out of sight, as if to entomb the play and its characters. There’s a whiff of Trump Tower and of Tutankhamun. Death seeps into everything: cut flowers and black sheets. At the front of the stage, a bag of ice melts. Big Daddy’s birthday candles burn themselves out. Fireworks flash-bang off metal like artillery fire. Children run riot with toy guns. Maybe it’s death that drags the play under. Maybe everyone’s too downbeat to fight for their life – let alone the family fortune.
That’s what “Cat” needs: an almighty clash of factions and forces. With Big Daddy at death’s door and $90 million up for grabs, his daughters-in-law should be at war, but Hayley Squires and Miller can only manage a few sassy squabbles. There’s no bullfight between father and son either: Colm Meaney’s cigar-chewing, slow-thinking Big Daddy seems strangely resigned to his alcoholic son’s fate.
Not without good reason: O’Connell gives an unflinching portrayal of drink dependency as Brick Pollitt, the golden boy gone to rot. He starts naked, slumped in a shower and sticking fingers down his throat and, over the night, chugs three bottles in search of the “click” that stops the thoughts in his head. This isn’t functional alcoholism. It’s messy and raw. When Maggie hides his drink, he launches at her, swinging his crutch like a caveman’s club.
Miller, sadly, is no match for him as Maggie the Cat – and it means the play’s opposing force, its sex drive, goes missing. She may strip down alongside Brick, she may crawl across the floor like a stock-footage seductress, but there’s no strategy to her sexuality. She’s simply not a strong enough actress. Her thoughts don’t run through. Each line sounds the same.
Andrews’ argument is that everyone here is out for themselves. Not only that, they treat others as mere means to an end. It’s in the see-through sucking up to keep Big Daddy sweet, and in Maggie clawing her way out of poverty by sticking with Brick. Women use their sexuality for security; mothers use their kids as bait; fathers want heirs and high achievers more than they want sons. Alice Babidge’s costumes are a constant delight – not just gauche, but gilt. She doesn’t so much dress women as gift wrap them, while Mae’s kids run around like mini Ferrero Rochers.
If the production shows people as objects, though, that’s also its downfall. There’s so little affection here, so few bonds between them, that there’s nothing to counterbalance the cutthroatery. For all that such family dynamics have a frisson right now, with political echoes, they’re so clearly a bunch of crooks, it’s difficult to care much for any of them