Fraser sizzles in Deep South drama

Review by Jack Foley

 

A HOLLYWOOD heavyweights Brendan (The Mummy series) Fraser, Frances (AI) O'Connor and Ned (Deliverance) Beatty set the London stage alight in this blistering version of Tennessee Williams's classic play.

Directed by Anthony Page, and incorporating the sentimental re-writes afforded it by Williams for Broadway audiences, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is as engaging and thought-provoking an evening you are likely to spend in the West End for some time and to miss it, would be a tragedy as great as the story itself.

Fraser stars as Brick (assuming the Paul Newman role from the movie), the arrogant but sexually confused heir to a fortune, who is forced to evaluate and take stock of his drunken, angst-ridden existence on the very day that his father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Goaded by his fiery wife, (O'Connor), during the play's first act, Brick eventually lets go of his emotions and anxieties in a quite powerful and frequently emotionally draining second act, when he and Big Daddy (impressively played by Beatty in scene-chewing form) finally have it out in a bedroom, all the while aware of the scheming going on behind their backs by another of Big Daddy's offspring.

At two and a half hours, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is, given its subject matter, demanding viewing - but to sit through it is to reap massive rewards. Page's production values, while attractive, are simple enough to draw the focus of attention on the performers; and they don't disappoint.

In the first act, it is O'Connor's self-described 'Cat' who hogs the limelight, as she desperately vys for Brick's affections while teasing him about his questionable sexuality and her own romantic liaison with his best friend and possible lover, who has now committed suicide. It is a performance of simmering intensity, of frustrated desire and of cringe-inducing desperation. Her devotion to Brick is unwavering, even to the point of self humiliation if she can get a rise from him and O'Connor is entrancing to watch.

Fraser, for his part, is forced to play second fiddle to O'Connor's histrionics, choosing to mutter the occasional reply, or respond with angry outbursts at his wife's constant badgering. It is a mark of the actor's growing stature, however, that one is reluctant to completely take your eye off him for fear of missing a moment (a trait reserved for the best types of icons, such as Steve McQueen).

When Fraser lets go, however, he really delivers and his scenes with Beatty's dying land-owner are, quite simply, breathtaking. The second act is the main course and takes some digesting as, first, Fraser comes to terms with his relationships and, secondly, informs his father of his own terminal predicament - the rest of the family had been keeping him from the truth. The on-stage fireworks between the two are quite terrific and are guaranteed to raise those hairs on the back of your neck!

If the third and final act fails to reach the giddy heights of its predecessors, then this is no bad thing, allowing the audience time to take in what has gone before before delivering on its final moments. But make no mistake, this is a quality production and a class apart from the norm in the West End.

Aside from the big three, there is a splendid support cast, including Gemma Jones and Clive Carter, while the script bristles with energy and is packed with Williams's trademark black humour. It will keep audiences on their toes, in spite of its length.

On seeing the opening night recently, one critic was moved to write that the queues should stretch back to Hyde Park in the rush to see this production. Let us hope he is right. The show is booking until December and is a must for any fan of great theatre.