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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The Maids

Apparently David Bowie was a fan of Jean Genet. I found this out from my dad, who bought a copy of The Maids back in the seventies after Bowie mentioned it in an interview. The famous song ‘Jean Genie’ may well have been named after the French writer, so I thought it seemed rather apt that it was playing in the bar before the show. I had high expectations, then, but my eventual verdict was mixed.

On a set resembling a giant petal-strewn bed (designed by Soutra Gilmour), maids Claire and Solange act out fantasies. Solange dresses as Claire, Claire dresses as their employer, wearing a wig, strong makeup and a dress. The pair act out their fantasy of killing their mistress, which they have decided must take place for real very soon (the play was based on the real-life case of the Papin sisters, who murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933). Jamie Lloyd’s production adds another dimension to Genet’s 1947 play by casting black actors as the servants, adding a racial dynamic to the piece. Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton are both superb, giving compelling performances, as does Laura Carmichael as the Mistress when she enters about halfway through.

Frankly, at some points I got bored: there were so many long speeches. I thought for a large proportion of it that I might enjoy the text if I was reading it; as delivered on stage, however, I often found it tedious. I’m not sure if this is because of the play itself, or the new version by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.

In summary, I was a bit disappointed with The Maids. There were some fantastic performances and some interesting ideas but for me they didn’t add up to something that was actually engaging on the stage. Admittedly,the running time of almost two hours without an interval probably didn’t help, as the seats at the Trafalgar Studios aren’t particularly comfortable at the best of times, and when you can’t move for a couple of hours they become positively painful. Still, I don’t regret giving the play a try.

A Streetcar Named Desire

It’s happened. After a decade and several productions, I think I finally “get” Tennessee Williams. At least, A Streetcar Named Desire, currently running at the Young Vic, is such a fantastic production that I can finally appreciate Williams’ status as one of the great American playwrights.

Directed by Benedict Andrews, who also directed the Young Vic’s fabulous Three Sisters in 2012, the play tells the story of Blanche DuBois, who goes to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, a decade after the sisters last saw each other. Over the course of the play, we learn more about the characters and witness Blanche’s breakdown.

Magda Willi’s design is of a rectangular revolving stage, representing Stella and Stanley’s small apartment, with the audience seated in the round. At first I was apprehensive about the design, fearing I wouldn’t get to see much of the play, the more so as my seat was at the back of the set as it was laid out when I entered. However, the revolve does ensure that every audience member gets a decent view; it also adds to the sense of voyeurism, as the audience as well as the characters look in on secret conversations and bear witness to things that they shouldn’t.

Gillian Anderson is electric as Blanche, perfectly capturing her initial glamour and unsteadiness, her love for her sister and her personal struggles, as well as her tragic disintegration as the play goes on. Vanessa Kirby is equally good as her sister Stella, caught between her love for Blanche and her feelings for her husband, the loving but violent Stanley (a superb Ben Foster). I also liked Corey Johnson as Mitch, Stanley’s friend, who for a time seems to be offering a chance of happiness to Blanche.

The production is another long one – three and a half hours. While the time didn’t fly by, as it did in The Crucible, I didn’t resent the length of the piece, which is a powerful, unsettling must-see.

Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov’s superb play has had a makeover in Benedict Andrews’ new Young Vic production. The language and situation has been updated to the modern day and the set design includes a mass of tables and chairs – the kind you find in a school – with a pile of dirt at the back of the stage. If the set was reminiscent of a classroom, though, the production was anything but amateur.

The acting was first class, with Mariah Gale and Gala Gordon superb as the worn out Olga and idealistic Irina, though the standout performance for me came from Vanessa Kirby as the middle sister Masha, the most outwardly rebellious of the three, clad in black throughout the play like Chekhov’s other famous Masha (from The Seagull) though this Masha is less in mourning for her life than striving against it. Her lover Vershinin is played by William Houston, who also gave a fine performance: when I saw him in Uncle Vanya at the Print Room I remember thinking that his presence was too ‘big’ for such a small theatre, and after seeing him here, I believe I was right. Natasha, Andrei’s prospective spouse, is intelligently played by Emily Barclay, who convincingly traces her development from awkward village girl to nagging wife and obsessive mother. Andrei himself (Danny Kirrane) is an amiable, overweight scholar who is clearly unable to fulfil the high hopes his sisters have pinned on him – the ineffectual male surrounded by loving, but much more determined and intelligent sisters that are prevented from fulfilling their potential reminded me of the Brontë clan. His innate laziness takes over and he is transformed into the henpecked husband of the piece, literally left holding the baby at the end of the play.

There are some flaws to the modern setting. Chekhov’s plays always send a shiver down my spine in the way they perceptively foreshadow the Russian Revolution. Divorcing Three Sisters from its early 20th century setting loses this sense of a particular moment in time. Also, the advances in methods of communication mean that the sisters’ remove from Moscow life should be less absolute, and consequently less tragic. Even so, there is enough universal humanity in the play to allow it to work in an updated environment. The tragic ending, inevitable though it is, loses none of its impact, and the strength of the sisters’ ability to endure comes through as clear as ever. This production is daring and unconventional, but it stays true to the spirit of the original, which is a fantastic achievement.