Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Charles Aitken as Brick and Dara O'Malley as Big Daddy Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Mariah Gale as Maggie Credit: Jonathan Keenan
Matthew Douglas as Gooper, Mariah Gale as Maggie and Charles Aitken as Brick Credit: Jonathan Keenan

After his award-nominated production of The Accrington Pals nearly two years ago, director James Dacre returns to the Royal Exchange with one of the least revived, at least regionally, of Tennessee Williams's major plays.

Set entirely in Brick and Maggie's bedroom, which is all pure white in Mike Britton's design, we firstly witness a troubled marriage in which Maggie talks constantly, bitching about other members of the family, while Brick barely acknowledges her presence as he works his way through the liquor cabinet.

Downstairs, the rest of Brick's family is celebrating the 65th birthday of his father, known only as Big Daddy. The family patriarch, who has been ill for some time, is reasserting his authority after being told he is not, after all, dying of cancer—but has he been told the truth?

Maggie is trying to get Brick to face up to truths as she sees them. Brick has hit the bottle and refused to sleep with his wife since the death of his best friend Skipper, and Maggie believes that Skipper's love for Brick was more than just as a friend.

It is a play with Williams's usual themes, characters and stories about a southern family, with strong roots in his own relatives. It is quite heavy on the long speech, so can take some concentration to keep up with at times, but Dacre's production does bring out all of the depth of feeling and sudden exposing of barely-hidden hatreds that come to a head on this one night.

In the past, star casting has revolved around the parts of Maggie and Big Daddy. Here, Brick's neglected and frustrated wife is played by Mariah Gale in a performance with a great deal of emotional depth. While she isn't exactly nice to the other characters, she still comes out as perhaps the most sympathetic member of the family.

Daragh O'Malley growls his way through Big Daddy in a performance that portrays the person whose entrance is built up as though he were a frail and lovely old man into a thoroughly nasty and manipulative patriarch, although his scene with Charles Aitken's Brick shows he cares about his son and wants to straighten him out—but cares little about his other son Gooper (Matthew Douglas) and his wife Mae (Victoria Elliott) and brood of five badly-behaved children.

Other than the white set, there are some impressive design element to the production. The play opens with Brick visible in the shower with a beautiful sequence of lighting (Richard Howell) and music (composer Charles Cave of White Lies) and Cave's subtle, at times barely audible score is cleverly manipulative and atmospheric throughout.

It clearly isn't a production for everyone as some didn't return after the interval at press night, but it certainly kept my attention and has some impressive performances, especially from O'Malley.

Reviewer: David Chadderton