Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Royal Exchange, Manchester)
Verdict: Bullet proof
Visitors (Watermill, Newbury, Berks)
Verdict: Twilight glow
The great thing about Tennessee Williams is that he’s more or less indestructible. The brawny vigour and sometimes sordid humanity of his great writing can survive all manner of assault — as his Cat On A Hot Tin Roof does in Manchester.
This is the play that’s probably still best known from the 1958 film starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. It’s the tale of a wealthy Mississippi family having a collective dark night of the soul while celebrating the 65th birthday of terminally ill patriarch and cotton tycoon Big Daddy. The script may come out bruised and bloodied from Roy Alexander Weise’s bullish production, yet it also stands tall and defiant. It’s a prize fighter of post-war theatre.
Weise’s decision to cast the play’s white plantation owners with black actors in a seemingly modern-day setting is interesting but of little consequence. The characters are so rooted in their historical period, you can no more take them out of it than pluck a tree from the ground.
Undeterred, Weise seeks to soften us up by laying down hip-hop tunes in the foyer and presenting a set that looks like a circular Barry White love nest on stage. Satin sheets cover a double bed on a shag pile cream carpet and, overhead, an angular light fitting revolves in lieu of Big Daddy’s chandelier.
Bayo Gbadamosi (Brick) and Ntombizodwa Ndlovu (Maggie) in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
His garrulous, saucy daughter-in-law Maggie (the Taylor role and the title’s cat on heat), is played here about three decibels too loud by Ntombizodwa Ndlovu.
BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
Catch Frederick Ashton’s sumptuously costumed Royal Opera House 75th anniversary production of the Perrault fairy tale, starring Moira Shearer and Michael Somes, live in cinemas on April 12 and repeated on April 16 (roh.org.uk/cinemas).
And yet her determination to bed Brick — Big Daddy’s favourite son and her husband — is infectious. As Brick, a bitter former footballer subduing his homosexuality with bourbon (the Newman part in the movie), Bayo Gbadamosi is more nuanced and introverted. But Patrick Robinson pulls no punches as a lean, mean, rasping Big Daddy. The sexual and psychological mind games that are Williams’s hallmark take a hit in bawling performances that prefer volume to intrigue.
And yet this is encouraged by the playwright’s own 1974 rewrites, uncharacteristically splattering the F-word on some of the dialogue (at a time when he himself was necking as much booze as Brick). Lines like Big Daddy’s rueful self-assessment that ‘you buy and buy in the crazy hope that one purchase will be life everlasting’ remind you that the original play was both tougher and more delicate.
Williams will live to fight another day. He always does.
Barney Norris’s play Visitors is an altogether more peaceful vision of family life. It’s about an elderly lady, Edie, who faces being shipped out of her farmhouse and put into a care home.
Norris’s characters, from his native Wiltshire, paint a canvas that’s Chekhov without the grand gestures of Russian literature, or Bennett without the slyly sardonic digs. It is bathed in sepia-toned sadness as it records the life of Edie and her husband Arthur, who share memories of poaching, a church wedding and working the land.
Norris might have benefited from a more demanding director to delve deeper into his characters’ quiet agonies. But Tessa Bell-Briggs does still catch the ebb and flow of Edie’s meandering memories, reassuring Christopher Ravenscroft, as her fond husband, that ‘you do make me laugh’.
The shadow of the future is cast by Patrick Toomey as the troubled insurance broker son with a failing marriage, and there are touches of levity from Nathalie Barclay as the drifting former student who’s looking after Edie.
With little more than a couple of armchairs surrounded by dry grass and serenaded by a grandfather clock and birdsong, it’s a sweet show that lets time slip quietly away.
(Downstairs, Hampstead Theatre)
As is sometimes said in a child’s school report, Cordelia Lynn’s new play Sea Creatures is trying — very trying.
It’s the story of four women sharing a house by the sea who are joined by an eager-to-impress young man — or, as Lynn jokes here, ‘a sperm bank’ — and, later, by a story-telling fisherman, and an old woman from one of his yarns.
Geraldine Alexander leads the cast as a cold-blooded professor of an unknown discipline, while Thusitha Jayasundera is an artist who paints everything as lobsters (except she doesn’t).
Pearl Chanda is a moody mum-to-be rueing an experimental pregnancy; and Grace Saif is a young woman who trots about in pyjamas acting kookily naïve.
The eager young man (Tom Mothersdale), who hopes to impress the professor with his PhD, does a lot of cooking.
On the plus side, the play may be a vision of purgatory in which, as one character remarks, it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s real, what’s felt and what’s feared.
It is moreover very English, filled with cold restraint in a world where nobody shares much with anyone, does much for anyone or tries to reach out to anyone.
It’s riddled with surreal non-sequitors and it’s very hard to care for characters who take so little interest in each other.
In mitigation, Lynn may argue that she is a stage poet and is therefore on special licence. But for a theatre that’s just lost its £766k Arts Council grant, it is remarkable that they are backing such an expensive looking show.
Centred on a fully equipped kitchen island unit, with light box overhead acting as the sky, it touts a costly troupe of seven actors, too. And this in a low-yield studio, seating barely 80 people.
Observing hangdog expressions in the audience arranged around the stage does little for morale. But surely veteran director James Macdonald must realise that when a character starts playing the wooden tower block game Jenga, or a mechanical lobster traverses the stage (twice), no one will listen to what’s being said.
The best thing here is June Watson’s batty old lady, and her terrific speech about being seduced and abandoned by a mythological sea god. That was riveting.
A gag-filled, good-hearted Highland fling
Kidnapped (Theatre Royal, Glasgow and touring)
Verdict: R.L. Stevenson romp
By Veronica Lee
From the team behind Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) — a divine musical mash-up of Jane Austen’s novel and modern romantic mores — comes this witty reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, turning it from a boy’s own adventure into a boy-meets-boy escapade.
Kidnapped (National Theatre of Scotland). Davie (Ryan J Mackay) and Alan (Malcolm Cumming)
Isobel McArthur and Michael John McCarthy again fuse 18th-century drama with 20th-century pop songs to create an exuberant entertainment and, while it’s affectionately irreverent, the National Theatre of Scotland production pays due respect to a titan of Scottish literature.
The evening starts a little slowly as we learn of poor wee orphan Davie Balfour’s plight. The 19-year-old’s nasty uncle Ebenezer has stolen his ancestral home from him — and paid a sea captain to kidnap him — and it takes a while before we get to the riotous action on board the pirate ship and subsequent larks.
But then what a ride, as events — based on a true story about the killing of Colin Campbell (aka the Red Fox) in the Jacobite rebellion — unfold.
Davie rescues Jacobite agent Alan Breck Stewart, who is about to be murdered by the dastardly captain for his gold purse, before they are all shipwrecked.
Alan and Davie are separated, reunited, escape together, get into more scrapes, are hunted down when they are accused of killing Campbell and declare undying love for each other (wait — what was that last bit?!), but part when Alan has to flee for France.
Interwoven through these scenes, Stevenson’s sassy American wife, Frances (‘Fanny, if you must’) acts as a singer-narrator, describing her passionate love affair with the author, her unhappy first marriage and the pain of widowhood — bullet points that mirror Alan and Davie’s relationship.
Malcolm Cumming certainly knows how to swash his buckle as Alan and Ryan J. MacKay is suitably sweet as the naif Davie, while Kim Ismay provides some vinegar in the sap as Frances.
The talented ensemble of seven (under the performing musical director Isaac Savage) assume several roles and play various musical instruments. Anna Orton’s simple set is remarkably versatile, acting as house, cave, ship and tavern. And the show is gag-filled and enormously good-hearted under Miss McArthur and Gareth Nicholls’ co-direction.
Touring until May 20 (nationaltheatrescotland.com)
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy
(Apollo Theatre, London)
Verdict: A great group hug
By Georgina Brown
This is no misery memoir. It’s a vigorous, physical and emotional workout for six black boys as they wrestle with the stereotypes imposed on them by the communities they belong to and the bigoted world beyond.
Above all, Ryan Calais Cameron’s play (which he also directs) is poetry in motion: sometimes lyrical and tender, always brutally truthful, bursting with music and movement.
It opens to the moody sound of a sax with the boys a tangle of interlocked bodies. From there, back to school, where six-year-old Jet, who worships blond Stephen because he is chased by the girls while the black boys are ignored, asks his mum: ‘Can I please be white . . . be right . . . just liked?’
Then to group therapy, where the boys open up about the pressures of institutional racism, gang violence, abusive fathers, of not acting ‘black enough’, of badman macho posturing.
And the desire, when the hue gets too heavy, to release themselves from the dishonest versions of themselves they have created.
For all the pain, there’s joy and laughter, silliness even. An astonishing cast, superbly choreographed, give it their all, body and soul, and then some. Stunning.