A cool and classy revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Royal Exchange, Manchester
First performed in 1955, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a huge success, running for 694 performances on Broadway. It won Tennessee Williams his second Pulitzer Prize.
Williams was a master playwright, creating real, living, breathing characters within a family environment, dramatising conflicts in relationships and compassion for the outsider facing moral prejudice from conventional society.
“ I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience .. ..that cloudy, flickering, effervescent interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis”. TW, Act II.
In his earlier play, A Streetcar named Desire, the flighty, flirtatious, femme fatale, Blanche DuBois appears to be delicate, refined, innocent, but it’s all a mask to escape the ghosts of her past, “After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a brutal, brittle family drama – where the emotional discord and sexual tension, shrouded from reality through secrets and lies, is about to be shattered through the revelation of hard hitting truth.
The setting is a glossy white furnished bed-sitting room of a palatial Mississippi Plantation House, the estate of “Big Daddy” Pollitt. It’s his 65th birthday and returning home are his son Brick with wife Maggie, his elder son Gooper, his wife Mae and their five children, to be joined by other local friends.
The opening scene is brilliantly filmic: Fans whirr overhead in the shadowy twilight, as we see Brick in the shower, washing in real water. Maggie rushes in, undressing quickly down to her silk slip. When he emerges wrapped in a towel, one leg is in plaster with a crutch under one arm.
Trying to relive the happy days of his sporting youth, he has broken his leg attempting to jump hurdles at the High School.
She explains that one of Gooper’s “no-neck monsters” – as she refers to his noisy, undisciplined kids – has spilt something on her blouse and she has to change. Brick ignores her and hobbles over to the Cocktail cabinet. “Did you say something, Maggie?” he asks, dismissively, while she whines on in a monotone voice.
Within just a few minutes of this intimate scene, you can sense his cold bitterness and simmering anger, while she maintains an effusive charm as if all is hunky-dory.
Naked to the waist, Charles Aitken has broad muscular arms, slender athletic body, short blond hair, all rather reminiscent of Beckham – an apt comparison as Brick is a former football player. Having seen Ian Charleson in his breathtaking performance in this role (NT 1988), Aitken captures a similar haunting look in the eyes expressing the pain of mental torment.
The first Act focuses on Brick and Maggie, as she tries to break his mood of despair and encourage him to get ready for the birthday party. She is the Cat of the title, catty and spiteful in manner, desperately jealous of Mae, (pregnant again), while she is childless in a sham of a marriage.
Brick is a broken man – emphasised by his leg in plaster – grieving the tragic death of his best friend, Skipper and his only solace is a stiff drink. Alcohol is his other crutch.
But what was the full nature of their relationship? Maggie demands to know the truth having been so jealous of Skipper, guessing that it was a secret love that dare not say its name.
Mariah Gale as Maggie has a neat, brunette perm, perfects a slow, Southern drawl and sultry look, perhaps modelled on Elizabeth Taylor in the film version. She is cat-like, flouncing around the bedroom from chaise longue to the double bed, trying to tease and entice her husband. He merely hops over to the whiskey bottle and ice bucket to freshen his drink, again and again.
In one of the most electrically-charged scenes, Maggie becomes more and more hysterical – she’s lonely, rejected and, despite wearing a sexy basque and stockings, no longer desired by Brick. He can only retort that his friendship with Skipper was honest and real. “The one great good thing in his life which was true.”
A clever directorial moment is when Big Daddy, Mamma, Gooper, Mae and children, suddenly wander half way down the aisles around the stage as if listening to their private conversation. “ The walls of this house have ears” comments Maggie.
After dinner, all the family arrive to join Brick and Maggie for birthday cake celebrations. While Big Mamma bustles around in jolly party spirit, conversation turns to Big Daddy’s health and Gooper’s devious plans to take control of the Plantation.
Daragh O’Malley portrays Big Daddy, strutting about as the powerful Patriarch, puffing on his cigar, with a bullish, bullying presence. His heart to heart – man to man chat with Brick about Skipper becomes more heated as more whisky is consumed. They are both in denial about the truth, lingering guilt, shame, the fear of mortality.
But O’Malley’s incessant, raucous shouting is more akin to an overacted TV soap opera, rather than expressing the “cloudy, flickering, effervescent interplay” – the ebb and flow of William’s poetic dialogue. Less is more.
The original play was structured with two intervals to give each Act the space to breathe. In this revised two Act production the first act is too long, strangely breaking for the interval half way through the conversation between Big Daddy and Brick. (My sister and I were getting cramp and four people crept out after 70 minutes). While Brick was presumably drinking iced tea not Bourbon, the men seem to be smoking real cigars, the smell penetrating around stage side seats.
Directed by James Dacre with a languid pace, the star turns are the very watchable Charles Aitken and Mariah Gale in the central roles. Matthew Douglas is rather comical as the bumbling Gooper as is Victoria Elliot as the vivacious Mae as part of an impressive cast.
Music by Charles Cave – (the soundtrack played rather too quietly) – adds a soupcon of moody tension to the atmosphere. The theatre-in-the-round is perfect to create the claustrophobic space for the intimate close-up performance of this blisteringly hot and heartfelt drama.
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 30 October – 29 November, 2014
t. 0161 833 9833 www.royalexchange.co.uk