By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Simon Stone
Belvoir Street Theatre
16 February – 7 April

Simon Stone’s new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a curious beast. On entering the theatre, the audience is presented with a bare black space, bisected by a curtain of brightly coloured streamers. As the lights go down, a man and child emerge on a revolve; the child sings “Keep on the Sunny Side” while the man plays an upright piano. They disappear again behind the streamers; when they emerge again, the sing-along has collected another family member. This continues for several minutes: as a public performance of wholesome togetherness it’s up there with the Von Trapp Singers. It sums up Gooper and Mae’s pitch to Gooper’s father, Big Daddy: this family of theirs is why they should inherit Big Daddy’s plantation.

It’s an effective bit of staging and throughout the play Stone achieves some powerful images, like the wreckage of Big Daddy’s birthday that confronts us after intermission – wreckage that the cast then laboriously cleans up. But too often in this production Stone goes for striking images without thinking through their implications. The family sing-along is followed by the famous first scene between Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Brick (Ewen Leslie) – the scene where Maggie vents her frustrations at Brick and his family while he hobbles around, mostly silent, on crutches. Stone has McKenzie try on and then discard a series of dresses and shoes. The Imelda Marcos-like plenitude of Maggie’s wardrobe and her carelessness with her things make her anxieties about money seem petty rather than pressing.

Stone has described the play as “a mid-twentieth century classic that can stand on its own – without the trappings and spectacle of naturalistic staging – just by being spoken.” But in failing to locate his characters socially he muddles the drama. For the sake of a gag about Maggie’s indecisiveness in dressing (and it did get laughs), he short-changes her desperation and her sense of poverty. There are other distracting effects. Later in the play, when the news of Big Daddy’s illness is broken to Big Mama, the revolve spins the actors as relentlessly as a TV dinner in a microwave: the intention is probably to allow us to focus on each of the actors in turn, or to communicate a sense of chaos, but in fact it prevents the scene from developing a centre. There are blasts of loud music – including, why not, some 80s pop – and strobe lighting.

In some ways, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has not aged well; in particular, Brick’s intense friendship with his football teammate Skipper – the big secret Tennessee Williams reserves for cathartic revelation later in the play – has lost its taboo power. Brick’s anguish only makes sense in a context where homosexuality is deeply shameful. Sensibly, Stone concentrates on the contest over Big Daddy’s will; our attitudes to death and inheritance have changed much less. This gives the production a rather soapy tone – Mae (Rebecca Massey) waddling around with her tight pink dress drawn proudly over her pregnant belly, Gooper (Alan Dukes) looking eerily like Wayne Swan as he pleads economic responsibility in an ugly blazer. The caricatures are entertaining but they also limit our empathy. There’s no sense that Gooper and Mae have legitimate grievances. The long scene with Big Mama lumps Maggie with them as a greedy hypocrite. The production seems to endorse Brick and Big Daddy’s contempt for the rest of the family: it’s only when the men get together that ‘truth’ can be spoken. There’s a lingering sense of ugliness, laced with misogyny.

The casting too is uneven. Maggie and Brick are both glamorous people; the play is at least partly about the condition of glamour – the sense of entitlement it can breed in the glamorous (both husband and wife are beautiful sufferers), the resentment it inspires in others. (The 1958 film is an imperfect adaptation, but it got this right. Maggie and Brick behave like stars: it’s right that Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman should play them.) Ewen Leslie’s dour intensity is wrong for Brick: he doesn’t suggest someone who was once a sporting hero – a golden boy. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine McKenzie’s Maggie as a successful debutante, so thoroughly has she become the scrawny cat of the title. For characters so thoroughly focused on the past, the disconnect between what they have been and how they appear to us now throws us out of the play – when they talk about themselves, they often seem to be referring to someone else.

It all comes down to the world of the production. It needn’t be a naturalistic world, but it should be a coherent one. On this front, the new Cat doesn’t quite deliver.