This Bill Kenwright production has been the focus of stage tittle-tattle for the past year, with some dismissing as gimmicky the casting of Hollywood stars Brendan Fraser and Frances O'Connor along with Ned Beatty. But while Kenwright may well have had the appeal to North American tourists in mind (unaware, of course, of the post foot-and-mouth terrorist attacks that have cut off their supply yet further), substance has not been sacrificed in any way. This is an all-star cast that exceeds expectations in a piece that, under Anthony Page's direction, seems fresher and more poignant than ever.
At a Mississippi plantation house (rendered by Maria Bjornson's set of towering slatted walls and slow-moving ceiling fans), Big Daddy's family has gathered to celebrate his 65th birthday, in the knowledge - hidden from him - that, thanks to cancer, it will be his last. Elder son Gooper (Clive Carter) and his fecund wife Mae have designs on the family estate, while father's favourite Brick focuses his attention on the bottle and away from his childless, sexually frustrated spouse Maggie. A former football star nursing a broken ankle, Brick laments the passing of his youth and attempts to drown his sorrow and guilt following the death of his best friend, whom all believe loved him as rather more than a buddy.
While initially Fraser's Brick exhibits a tad too much detachment and too little menace, he comes into his own as his composure disintegrates with drunkenness. For his part, Beatty's Big Daddy is achingly well judged. Believing he's been given the medical all-clear, his gruff redneck-made-good is desperate to grab hold of life and mystified by his son's determination to throw it away. They appear to be opposites, but Big Daddy and Brick share an intolerance for lies and a disdain for their respective wives whose love they doubt - a suspicion which turns out to disguise the biggest lie of all.
And then there are those catty women. As Maggie - the primary cat determined to cling on to that scorching tin roof till the bitter end - O'Connor dazzles. She's clearly besotted with her husband, and yet flits, with outrageous garrulousness, between defending and attacking him. There are sterling performances, too, from O'Connor's fellow ferocious felines: Gemma Jones as Big Mama and Abigail Kern as the screeching Mae who uses motherhood as a fearsome weapon.
Though three hours long, this Cat on a Hot Tin Roof streaks by in a flash of fur and, after travelling through grief and bitterness and melancholy, it arrives finally at a most welcome moment of hope.
- reviewed by Terri Paddock