Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Whatever else you might say about Tennessee Williams, his plays have the best titles. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof isn’t a play I’m familiar with, but the prospect of a Young Vic production in the West End was too good to pass up.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner stars Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell as Maggie and Brick, a troubled couple struggling to relate to one another and battling their demons. Maggie wants a baby, but Brick won’t touch her: he steeps himself in whisky to try to cope with his own feelings over the death of his friend Skipper, and as the play goes on we learn that there was more to their friendship than meets the eye.

The play has attracted some very mixed reviews, but I honestly enjoyed it, and the near three-hour running time flew by. I found Miller convincing as Maggie, and O’Connell even more so as Brick, his body language saying a great deal. It’s true there’s nudity in the play, but I found it appropriate to the production: we see Brick naked in the shower, nursing a damaged leg, at the beginning of the play and this emphasises his physicality, his past as a professional footballer and his awareness that he is getting older. Similarly, Miller’s nudity shows how Maggie is willing to use her body to get what she wants.

The strongest scenes are those featuring Maggie and Brick, but dramatic tension is added with the entrance of family patriarch Big Daddy (an excellent Colm Meaney) and his overbearing wife, their other son and daughter-in-law and their clutch of children. This intimate domestic drama becomes a family saga as there is the threat that the family estate will be left to the larger family, and Big Daddy learns of his approaching death from cancer.

I wasn’t sure about the bare gold set, which would have looked fine in the Young Vic itself but seemed a bit out of place in the ornate Apollo. The production as a whole, though, held my attention and it’s one that I’m glad I’ve seen.

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Travesties

The revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties (directed by Patrick Marber) has transferred to the West End, which is good news for me as I couldn’t afford to pay Menier prices. The Apollo Theatre is small but has a bigger capacity than the Menier, and although I did end up squeezed into a Dress Circle seat with extremely limited legroom, at least I didn’t pay a fortune for it.

How to describe Travesties? Set in Zurich in 1917, it blends World War I, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest in a rich tapestry of humour, farce and general surrealism.

On a stage covered with pieces of paper, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr has a commanding presence, both as the elderly man looking back on his past and as the self-important official who is relegated to the sidelines as history happens all around him. Freddie Fox, Peter McDonald and Forbes Mason are also excellent as Tzara, Joyce and Lenin, as are Amy Morgan and Clare Foster as Gwendolen and Cecily.

You do have to pay attention, but it would be unfair to say you have to have knowledge of the historical events and cultural figures to get the most out of this play. I am familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest which helped, but I’d never heard of Dadaism before I saw this play. If anything, it’s made me want to go and find out more about the people concerned – which makes it a success in my book.

I think this story would work particularly well as a novel, but as a piece of theatre, it’s funny but also poignant: I don’t want to reveal too much but Henry Carr is not necessarily who he seems. Travesties is certainly a play worth seeing.

The Go-Between

The Go-Between, a new musical adapted and written by David Wood and Richard Taylor, sparked my interest for being based on the 1953 book of the same name by L.P. Hartley, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. However, it was the choice of Michael Crawford in the main role that swayed me. Famed for originating the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, he plays the main character’s older self, acting as narrator and is a constant presence on stage as he looks back into his past.

The story concerns a young boy, Leo Colston, who goes to stay with his richer friend Marcus one summer at the beginning of the twentieth century and becomes caught up in the secret romance blooming between Marcus’ older sister Marian and a local farmer, Ted Burgess. While the young Leo doesn’t always fully understand what is going on, the older Leo knows only too well. Crawford is superb in the role, conveying emotion wonderfully, and while he doesn’t have the vocal power that he used to, he still has a wonderful voice and his frailer tones fit the character.

Directed by Roger Haines, the show relies heavily on the two young boys who play Leo and Marcus, and at the performance I saw, Luka Green and Samuel Menhinick were both superb, particularly Samuel whose character of Marcus was incredibly annoying but very well portrayed. Among the adults, Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward were very good as Marian and Ted, while Issy Van Randwyck managed to be both charming and ultimately threatening as Marcus and Marian’s mother.

The simple set was evocative, with moving chairs and a piano, beautifully played by Nigel Lilley, the only instrument featured in the score. The music fit the piece beautifully, but I didn’t find it particularly memorable except for the song ‘Butterfly’.

This isn’t your average musical: it’s soft, evocative and subtle, not big and brash and loud like so many of the West End’s other offerings. Yet it’s well worth seeing, moving and quietly devastating.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Though I love special effects, songs and a gripping plot as much as the next person, I recognise that sometimes all you need is a simple stage, a scenario and a bunch of fantastic actors. That is exactly what you get in Anthony Page’s justly acclaimed revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This is one of the longest plays I’ve sat through this year, but I barely noticed, so absorbed was I in the unfolding drama before me.

The play follows one day in the life of the Tyrone family in Connecticut, 1912: actor father James, mother Mary, and sons Jamie and Edmund (the latter an autobiographical portrait of the playwright in his younger days). O’Neill wrote the play, based closely on his own experience, during the early years of the Second World War, and the complicated family ties are movingly portrayed. I had no prior knowledge of his work, but the subtlety of the characters and the domestic setting reminded me of my favourite playwright, Chekhov.

The play’s opening introduces a seemingly happy family, but events soon take a darker turn. James, shaped by his immigrant Irish upbringing, is a penny-pinching miser who rejected the chance to develop into a great Shakespearean actor in favour of the safer route as a matinee idol. Mary suffers from repeated bouts of illness – during the course of the play this is revealed to be morphine addiction, the result of bad doctoring during the birth of her youngest son. Eldest child Jamie is cynical and feckless while younger brother Edmund is suffering from consumption. His diagnosis threatens his mother’s tentative recovery, and the brothers along with their father seek refuge in drink.

All of the actors – David Suchet, Laurie Metcalf, Trevor White and Kyle Soller – were outstanding, playing their parts to perfection and transitioning effectively from hope to despair and back again. What I loved about this production was that, in the midst of the arguing and tension palpable between all the family members, their genuine love for each other was clear and was, in fact, probably the catalyst for their arguments. The Tyrones’ circumstances may have been particularly tragic, but the tortured love on display could, I think, be recognised by most families.

I highly recommend this powerful, brilliantly acted play: it is difficult to watch, but the experience is worth it.

The Madness of George III

The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett is currently undergoing a revival at the Apollo Theatre. First staged in 1991 at the National’s Lyttelton, the play currently stars David Haig as the king most famous for his ‘madness’ – now thought to be the rare blood disease porphyria.

The play is staged very cleverly with minimal set design that, before the start, looked like the walls of a madhouse covered in cushions. Doors, tables and lowered picture frame dividers successfully evoked Parliament, the palaces, the bedchamber and the rooms in which the King was locked up. We saw different sides of the King in all of these settings and in all stages of his health.

The highlight of the play for me was David Haig’s performance as George III. He was outstanding at all times, whether as the strangely likeable yet authoritative king, loving yet occasionally petulant husband, or the suffering sick man. His portrayal was extremely powerful, and at times painful to watch. The play examines the relationship between humanity, authority and madness, with one character voicing the thought that mad people often imagine themselves as kings – what then does George III imagine?

The other actors performed well too, with Christopher Keegan as a funny but menacing Prince of Wales conspiring to have himself declared Regent, and Clive Francis as the determined doctor who eventually cures the King. Despite knowing little to nothing about the period, the political situation was put across well with Prime Minister Pitt trying to fight off the opposition leader Charles Fox.

The play is very clever and interestingly echoes parts of modern society, with the Prince of Wales bemoaning his fate as king-in-waiting in a manner which suggests Prince Charles. There was also humour, particularly from the numerous doctors who try and fail to treat the king.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and thought it was well worth a visit – entertaining, challenging and thought-provoking.