Review: Maggie the Cat at The Dancehouse (Manchester International Festival)

When I heard about Trajal Harrell’s new MIF production Maggie the Cat, a dance piece inspired by Tennessee Williams’ sprawling Southern epic family drama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it sounded exciting and innovative.

Williams’ play has such rich characters that you can see why Harrell had a vision for translating this into movement. And in terms of a MIF commission, it ticks a couple of boxes – a well-known text to attract punters and an experimental twist.

The hit FX TV show Pose portrays a huge variety of characters on the New York Ballroom scene and transcends the boundaries of gender, race, sexuality, making for stunning TV. Between the drama, characters strike a pose, vogueing. You can imagine Madonna wandering round these clubs looking for a great idea for a song and a concept.

I mention this because when Maggie the Cat works well, it feels like Pose. The dancers strut towards you leaving their inhibitions at home, becoming the characters before your very eyes, walking tall in imaginary heels and giving you a defiant look, filled with nonchalance.

The problem is that whilst Williams’ play has a great deal going on, here it’s a series of repetitious scenes.

Trajal Harrell is fascinated by the figures we do not see in the text, the plantation workers who are grafting to line the pockets of this white privileged family. But this is not apparent unless you read the programme how to order soma notes, so any genuine impact is lost.

Not only that, but when Debbie Allen cast black actors in every key role in a Broadway and London production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ten years ago, she gave the play a brand new energy.

The dancers here are incredibly committed to this production and there are moments when the show resembles something by the amazing Hofesh Shechter. It is here that it becomes quite hypnotic.

But when you have dancers taping cushions to their bodies, moving pieces of the set incredibly slowly, then bringing them back again, strutting up and down constantly only to return to do the same, and two emcees (allegedly Big Daddy and Big Momma) talking barely audible nonsense into microphones, it takes the show into the realms of pretension and self-indulgence.

On paper, this must have seemed like an amazing idea for a show. But it lacks the finesse, beauty, budget, vision and emotional content of a Matthew Bourne production. He takes well known stories and reimagines them with beauty, grace and respect.

Maggie the Cat will leave you either stroking your beard seeking hidden meanings and nodding in agreement or longing for something resembling a narrative to take you away from the feelings of bewilderment. Because when it comes to entertainment, watching in awe is far more preferable.

Maggie the Cat is at The Dancehouse until 14th July.


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