Andrzej Lukowski: Why were critics so divided over Sienna Miller’s West End turn?

Sienna Miller and Jack O'Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Sienna Miller and Jack O'Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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There’s something brilliantly incongruous about the New York Times’ Ben Brantley turning up to shows in London; a bit like that time Jon Hamm popped up in Toast of London. Brantley is the most powerful theatre critic in the world. He writes lofty 3,000-word screeds that determine the fate of multimillion-dollar Broadway shows, while we, his notional British peers, are mostly just happy to have jobs.

I happened to be sat behind him at the recent press night for Benedict Andrews’ production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller. At the end, I was quite touched to see that he was clapping rather effusively at this palpably underwhelming production.

When I got home I noticed that critic/blogger/general agitator Andrew Haydon had cheerily tweeted that “the first 45 minutes of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are 45 of the worst minutes I’ve ever spent in a theatre”.

That took me aback – it surely wasn’t that bad – and before I went to bed I read The Stage review, which bolstered my general feeling that it was a slightly disappointing three-star show.

The next day, though, the reviews were all over the shop. And though Andrews’ modestly left-field production raised a few eyebrows, that wasn’t really the issue. It was the actors, partly Jack O’Connell, but foremost Miller. Where Holly Williams was calling her performance “one note” and “rattled through” for WhatsOnStage, Fiona Mountford dubbed it “faultless” in the Evening Standard.

Quentin Letts seemed more interested in reviewing Miller’s “slender curves”, saying the chief reason to see the show was to witness the star “remove her kit”. Dominic Cavendish talked about the “phwoar-o-meter” of flesh on display but pointed out it was gender balanced.

And hovering over us all like a high priest was Brantley, who genuinely astonished me, declaring Maggie to be the “stage role she was born for, and she owns it unconditionally”.

I thought she was decent, but did little to convey Maggie’s darker side. The idea of her being unwatchably bad seemed ridiculous, but so did the notion I’d watched something revelatory.

What does it all mean? Think about it too hard and you might conclude that theatre critics don’t actually know anything about anything. I prefer to think we merely reflect the fact that theatre is divisive. But why were we so over the shop on this one?

It’s fairly clear from the reviews that some younger writers are hung up on Andrews’ 2012 Young Vic production of Three Sisters and regard the departure of his subsequent work with suspicion. Plus there’s the simple fact of Miller’s celebrity, lurking in the back of everyone’s minds: she is more famous for being famous than she is for acting, and it probably affects how we assess her.

Ultimately I don’t doubt what I thought about the production, but I wouldn’t presume my opinion is the ‘right’ one. As Brantley returns home to pronounce judgement on the latest batch of Broadway hopefuls, I reflect – not for the first time – that I’m glad nobody has been daft enough to entrust me with that sort of power.