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.

The Glass Menagerie

It’s strange, but I completely loved The Glass Menagerie. It’s strange because I studied this play for A Level and absolutely hated it. My experience left me with a lasting dislike of Tennessee Williams that only the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire was able to fully expel; and yet I fell in love with John Tiffany’s production at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Whether this is because of the way my own personality has developed in the intervening period, because Menagerie is a play you have to see to appreciate, or because of the excellence of this particular production, I can’t say; but already it’s a contender to be among my top plays of the year.

Loosely autobiographical, it sees the narrator, Tom, looking back on his life with his mother and sister. His mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle in the best Williams tradition; his sister, Laura, is shy and quiet, with a disability as the result of a past illness and few interests beside her glass animals: her “glass menagerie”. Amanda wants nothing more than to get Laura married off, and nags Tom to bring home a ” nice young man” for dinner. The resulting young man, Jim, seems promising but ultimately ends up breaking Laura’s heart.

The play takes on the quality of a dream, with an expressionistic set by Bob Crowley including a staircase ascending into nowhere. All four actors are wonderful in their respective roles: Michael Esper as Tom, Cherry Jones as Amanda, Brian J. Smith as Jim and especially Kate O’Flynn as Laura. Its wonderful and heartbreaking to see her blossom in the young man’s company; heartbreaking because you know what is going to happen. When I originally studied the play, one of the things I remember disliking about it was its supposed simplicity and heavy-handed metaphor. Its only now that I can see that it’s not simple at all, but complex and delicate as Laura’s glass figures.

This production is a relevation: profound and perfectly balanced. I loved it.

Wild At Heart

Another visit to the Pentameters Theatre beckoned in order to see another of their Tennessee Williams productions. Directed by Seamus Newham, this production of Wild At Heart encompassed four short plays: At Liberty (1939), Mr Paradise (1941), Hello From Bertha (1946) and Talk To Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen (1952).

At Liberty was a moving exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, while Mr Paradise was an amusing tale of a lapsed poet tracked down by an enthusiastic young fan. Hello From Bertha was a powerful scene set in a St. Louis brothel, while Talk To Me… closed the show with a quiet, contemplative exploration of a failing relationship. Taken altogether, the evening was a rich and engrossing one.

Confessional

This adaptation of a 1970 Tennessee Williams play, originally set in 1950s California, has been written by Jack Silver and transports the action to modern-day Southend. The Little space at the Southwark Playhouse has been transformed into a working pub: I bought a drink from the bar before I sat down, from a barman who proves to be one of the characters.

Confessional follows a group of characters over the course of one night in a run-down bar. The company, Tramp, uses an unusual acting style in which lines are memorised but delivery and blocking are improvised each night: this makes for an exceptionally naturalistic evening, and I felt that I was really in a pub eavesdropping on the locals. I thought the production was excellent, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the company comes up with next.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is a rarely-performed Tennessee Williams play produced at the Print Room in Notting Hill. I found it a moving and memorable play that doesn’t deserve its obscure status.

Creve Coeur was originally written in the 1950s as a screenplay, but was never produced. Williams rescued and rewrote the abandoned script in the 1970s and the play premiered in 1978.

The play has the themes of most Williams plays, of disappointed love, desire and nostalgia for the past, but there is a freedom in its language which stems from the fact that this late play didn’t have the censorious restrictions of Williams’ earlier work. Director Michael Oakley strikes a pleasing balance between the comic and tragic aspects of the work, and there are several rounded and complex female characters, which is to be especially welcomed in a play from this era. It’s an evocative, exquisitely produced play that is well worth seeing.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel

In the bar of a Tokyo hotel, a middle-aged woman sits and drinks, waiting for her husband who has followed her to Tokyo although she is trying to leave him. Tennessee Williams’ play was first performed in 1969, and is showing at the Charing Cross Theatre in a rare production directed by Robert Chevara.

Williams wrote a lot of plays, and I’ve grown to like much of his work in recent years. I can’t say that this play appealed to me, though. The dialogue is written in a stilted, staccato manner that frequently cuts off mid-sentence, a feature that grows increasingly annoying over the course of the evening. Apparently this was done on purpose to try and imitate the Japanese tradition of haiku. It’s an intriguing idea as the play is set in Japan, but for me it didn’t work.

The actors try their best with the material but I didn’t find any of them particularly appealing. Linda Marlowe’s protagonist Miriam is a repulsive predatory older woman who treats Andrew Koji’s barman in a way bordering on sexual abuse. Yasmine Maya has a thankless task as a woman who merely walks on stage, laughs and walks off a couple of times, and David Whitworth as Miriam’s husband, the artist Mark, doesn’t make much of an impact. Meanwhile, Alan Turkington’s character Leonard, supposedly based on Williams himself, seemed completely pointless. The slightness of the piece is exacerbated by the interval, which extends the running time of just over an hour by around twenty minutes.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect a playwright of Williams’ productivity not to produce a dud every now and then. Sadly, in my opinion, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel is one of those duds: I was bored throughout much of the play, despite strong efforts from all those involved.

Spring Storm

This production of Tennessee Williams’ early work Spring Storm is, as far as I am aware, the first time students on the MFA Acting (International) from the East 15 Acting School have performed at the Arcola Theatre (the piece is directed by Mehmet Ergen, the Artistic Director at the Arcola). I very much hope that it won’t be the last, as I was incredibly impressed at the talent that was showcased.

The play is set in Port Tyler, Mississippi, in the spring of 1937, and tells the story of Heavenly Critchfield (a superb Kate Kendrick), the girl all the boys desire, who is torn between her love for rebel dreamer Dick Miles (the very good Keethan Krish) and the security offered by rich boy Arthur Shannon (Christer Holtan). In one sense it’s clearly an early work, lacking satisfying character development and foreshadowing Williams’ later masterpieces The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, but it stands up fairly well on its own merits, with more humour and wit than I normally expect to find in one of his works. There is also plenty of heartbreak, particularly for the character of Hertha (an excellent Kaitlin Gould) as well as Heavenly’s spinster aunt, who seems resigned to her fate but whose example is one Heavenly would prefer to avoid.

A strong production by a talented cast: I would be happy to see further productions from the East 15 Acting School.