Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Bayo Gbadamosi (Brick) & Ntombizodwa Ndlovu (Maggie) Credit: Helen Murray
Patrick Robinson (Big Daddy) Credit: Helen Murray
Bayo Gbadamosi (Brick) & Patrick Robinson (Big Daddy) Credit: Helen Murray
Jacqui Dubois (Big Mama) & Danielle Henry (Mae) Credit: Helen Murray
Daniel Ward (Gooper) & Bruce McGregor (Reverend Tooker) Credit: Helen Murray
Lucas Cheong Smith (Dr Baugh) & Jacqui Dubois (Big Mama) Credit: Helen Murray
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu (Maggie) Credit: Helen Murray
Bayo Gbadamosi (Brick) Credit: Helen Murray
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu Credit: Helen Murray

The last production I saw of this 1955 Tennessee Williams play was at the Royal Exchange in 2014, but this revival from current Joint Artistic Director Roy Alexander Weise is quite different.

The play is set in a bed-sitting-room in a plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. It is the home of Big Daddy and Big Mama, but it is the room of their son Brick and his wife Maggie. Brick broke his ankle jumping hurdles on the sports field, but his reasons for refusing to engage with his wife either sexually or in conversation—the first ten pages are almost a monologue from Maggie—and for taking refuge in the bottle are to do with the death of his friend, suggestions from some of the family that their relationship may have gone further than just friendship and an act of betrayal by Maggie.

The occasion is Big Daddy's 65th birthday and he and Big Mama have been told his tests for cancer have come back negative, but the doctor and the rest of the family—Brick's dull lawyer brother Gooper and his wife Mae, currently expecting their sixth child (or "no-necked monsters" as Maggie calls them)—know otherwise. Big Daddy says he is sitting on "twenty-eight thousand acres of the richest land this side of the Nile valley" and has no will, nor sees no reason for one now he thinks he isn't dying, so who is going to inherit? Brick may be the favourite son, but he is childless and a drunk.

As so often in Williams's plays, it is in the heat of a Southern night when long-standing issues are confronted, wounds reopened and realities faced.

While this production clocks in at a daunting 3¼ hours, it certainly didn't feel it as Weise's handling of the pace is excellent, and the cast create a collection of characters whose company we enjoy, even though all are very flawed. Milla Clarke's set is a circular enclosure, almost a circus stage, with a double bed dominating it, which sometimes rotates. Overhead, the chandelier consists of just one light and several unenclosed loudspeakers, and this also rotates. Williams's realism is always only up to a point, but I'm not sure that the bursts of modern music or Big Daddy puffing on a vape add anything or make the play feel like it is set now rather than in the 1950s.

Patrick Robinson's Big Daddy is the strong, no nonsense patriarch whose wife (Jacqui Dubois) is often the butt of his cruel jibes, but she can also be very firm with the rest of the family. Ntombizodwa Ndlovu's Maggie the Cat can be annoying and demanding but makes us feel for her situation, while Bayo Gbadamosi's Brick quietly avoids confrontation or engagement with anyone, until he is properly provoked. Daniel Ward's Gooper is pretty dull and ineffectual, while his wife, Danielle Henry as Mae, is selfish, demanding and altogether pretty awful—with some great shocked expressions when Big Daddy confronts her. The cast is completed by Lucas Cheong Smith as the Doctor and Bruce McGregor as Reverend Tooker.

There are some very nice touches, such as the repetition of the end of the previous act before the beginning of the next to show there is no time lapse, the gospel harmony singing between acts and an effective use of subtle music at certain points from sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. There is also plenty of humour, with genuine laughs right from the start.

So don't be daunted by the long running time; despite the part after the interval running for as long as the whole of the last production at this theatre, this strong cast certainly kept my attention till the end.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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