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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
by Lizzie Loveridge

I'm not living with you. We just occupy the same cage.  
--- Maggie
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Brendan Fraser and Frances O'Connor
(Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
In 1955 the original production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1955 for Tennessee Williams. The filmed study of a dysfunctional family fighting over an inheritance in the Mississippi Delta famously featured Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The current revival is that all too rare benchmark event, a finely written play, adroitly directed with excellent performances, sensitively lit and beautifully set. Williams' writing retains its moments of high drama and blisteringly funny humour. His language is poetic and rhythmic, with repetition to underline the traps that his characters find themselves in. Maggie tells us time and time again that she is "Maggie the cat".

The pivotal event is a double celebration: Big Daddy, the self made plantation owner and family patriarch has a birthday and believes that the tumour he has is not cancerous. Gathered for the party are his sons -- Brick ex pro footballer and alcoholic (Brendan Fraser) and the stolid older son, Gooper (Clive Carter). Gooper's wife Mae (Abigail McKern), a grasping, busy body, is heavily pregnant with their sixth child but Brick's pretty Maggie (Frances O'Connor) is childless. Big Daddy's attitude towards his wife, Big Mama (Gemma Jones), approaches hatred. Because Brick has broken his ankle, the play takes place in his and Maggie's bedroom. But the rooms have thin walls and a balcony joins them so there is little privacy and no intimacy.

There are two endings for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the one which Tennessee Williams wrote and the more sentimental one adopted by Richard Brooks and James Poe for the film, which Williams said he preferred.

Frances O'Connor dominates the first act with a near three quarter of an hour monologue as the pent up, frustrated Maggie. She alienates us at first but by the end of the play we like her because Williams makes us choose which of Big Daddy's daughters in law we prefer. He also explains why Maggie wants financial security.

Brendan Fraser does not just give a good performance, he is remarkable. He gets progressively more stupefied as he uses alcohol to cut the pain and detach himself from the memory of his best friend, his family, his wife and the issue of the inheritance. In the first act, as we see him tanned and athletic we can understand Maggie's desire not just to provide Big Daddy with an heir but to share his bed. Ned Beatty completes the trio of American actors who give this production authenticity. Beatty's Big Daddy is a bully completely lacking in Southern gentlemanly charm. Gemma Jones looks bemused as Big Mama, Daddy's much maligned and rather stupid, materialistic wife. I liked Abigal McKern as Mae whose tries to secure the inheritance with misplaced singing performances from her ghastly children with bitterly comic effect.

Anthony Page's pacy direction ensures that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fizzes and sizzles for its three hour running time. The set is cool, pale green slatted walls with open French windows onto the balcony and at one side hanging pale green wool to remind us of the Spanish moss draped on the Mississippi trees. The double bed is unused whereas the cocktail cabinet is in constant use. As night falls the lighting changes, mellowing with Maggie's mood.

The near half century has seen attitude changes towards gender but this play still works. Families still battle over inheritance. Sexually dysfunctional marriages still exist. Men and women still abuse each other. This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deserves to be a highlight of the London theatrical year.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Anthony Page

Starring: Frances O'Connor, Brendan Fraser
With: Abigail McKern, Gemma Jones, Ned Beatty, David Firth, Clive Carter, Kenneth Jay, Ilario Bisi-Pedro, Valentine Hanson, Samantha Bingley/Louise Adams, Louiza Murphy/Georgina Mudd, Ryan De Freitas, Alexander McLintock
Design: Maria Björnson
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Music: Neil McArthur
Running time: Three hours with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7494 5045
Booking to December 22nd 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 19th September 2001 performance at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

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