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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof review at Apollo Theatre, London – ‘never completely connects’

Jack O'Connell and Sienna Miller in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Jack O'Connell and Sienna Miller in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The Young Vic’s first ever production to premiere in the West End sees Australian director Benedict Andrews return to the distinctive emotional terrain of Tennessee Williams, following his 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play as steeped in lies as it is in bourbon. Maggie’s husband Brick would rather drink himself into oblivion than discuss the true nature of his relationship with his dead friend Skipper. No one will tell Brick’s domineering, plantation-owning father Big Daddy that his “spastic colon” is in fact terminal cancer. On the night of Big Daddy’s birthday, the family members engage in various showdowns and stand-offs in which truth is used as a weapon.

Andrews has chosen to locate this play, in which truth is so elusive, in a world of gleaming surfaces and extremities of wealth. Designer Magda Willi has coated the stage in gold. It’s ravishingly lit by Jon Clark, while Alice Babidge’s costumes appear to be composed almost entirely of satin and sequins – the bratty ‘no-neck’ offspring of Big Daddy’s other son, Gooper, even wear little red ties. We’re not quite in Trump Tower, but if Nigel Farage were to saunter out of an elevator, I doubt anyone would blink.

A chrome shower-head occupies a central position on stage, to better facilitate the various scenes in which Brick strips, exposing his body instead of his soul. Maggie also removes her clothes. This is a production that revels in skin.

Sienna Miller – who made her West End debut in David Lan’s Young Vic co-production of As You Like It back in 2005 – conveys something of Maggie’s desperation but it’s a strained performance and there are times when her accent makes it sound like she’s been binge-watching Justified. O’Connell is at least suitably muscular and brusque as Brick, hobbled by an ankle injury, sinking drink after drink in search of the ‘click’ that makes his existence bearable.

But it’s not until the scene between Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy and Brick that things really come together. The actors bring out the best in one another while Andrews ruptures the tension with the noise of fireworks exploding overhead. O’Connell just about makes it plausible that despite the contemporary setting – the characters frequently whip out their smartphones – a man like Brick might be unable to face the truth about himself and his desires.

After this relatively well-judged scene, Andrews’ production becomes increasingly heavy-handed. By the end, the pristine set is covered in remnants of birthday cake and shattered ice cubes.

It’s easy to see what the director is trying to do and why he might want to do it, but Andrews’ chosen aesthetic never completely connects with the emotional world of the characters and, with its reliance on nudity, the production ends up feeling like an exquisite skin show coupled with an opulent soap opera. The scene between Meaney and O’Connell adds some welcome warm blood, but this is a production that never finds its click.

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Benedict Andrews’ gleaming and glossy, if emotionally underpowered, take on Tennessee Williams