by Les Phillips
"Ain't nothin' wrong with Big Daddy, all he's got is a li'l ole spastic colon. He's gwine go up on top of the house and survey his domain; twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile."
Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is very well-known, so much so that the language and milieu verge on camp and cliché (not that Williams didn't often tilt toward the former). Most people remember the Richard Brooks movie version, with Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat, Paul Newman as her alcoholic jock husband Brick, and Burl Ives as the rough, autocratic plantation patriarch Big Daddy (a role Ives, who in another part of his career sang folk music to small children, seemed too cuddly for). But it's often revived on stage - two New York revivals in the last twenty years, with Elizabeth Ashley and Kathleen Turner, respectively, in the role of Maggie. I saw both of those, and neither of them were nearly as good as the current London production, with Brendan Fraser as Brick, Frances O'Connor as Maggie, and Ned Beatty as Big Daddy.
Laugh all you want, make all the Encino Man references you want, but Brendan Fraser really is very good. Physically, he's perfect as the football stud going soft and a little fat. In the first act he mostly drinks and looks sulky - is in fact a dead ringer for the young Robert Mitchum - as the emotional pressure builds, he engages. His confrontational scenes with Beatty (who is perfect) are completely believable and absorbing, though Fraser's explosions probably need to be better modulated. I think it's very difficult to portray a character who drinks for the better part of three acts, has big scenes to play that have to be dramatically credible, and is still very, very drunk. Fraser manages this.
Previous revivals have been about Maggie and the Big Actress who played her; this version is clearly about Brick and Big Daddy (who, I think, is the father the author wanted and never had). Frances O'Connor (she played the Mom in A.I., although Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is the film performance that comes to my mind) accentuates Maggie's nervousness and scrappiness. In the first act especially she really does hop around the set like a cat on a hot tin roof, but she makes it credible. Some things are not credible, like each and every accent in the production, except for Beatty's. The production is so convincing otherwise that this ends up not mattering. The cartoonish performances by Gemma Jones, as Big Mama, and some hideous actress who plays Brick's sister-in-law Mae, are another matter, as are the talkier parts of the text - I'm not sure which of the several versions are used here, but it runs over three hours.
At the curtain call, Fraser looked drained (understandably) but also genuinely grateful, even humble. Why is he doing this gig in London, where he's surely paid even less for eight very strenuous performances per week than he would be paid in New York? Presumably it really is for the experience and training. (Well, as it turns out, the production is coming to Broadway.) Though he's still great-looking, the telltale bald patch on the back of his head might also be encouraging him to diversify his career a bit. In any case, he earned every bit of a considerable ovation. I've never felt more like congratulating an actor.