Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 30th October – 29th November 2014

Taking our seats around the stage, our eyes immediately settled upon the awaiting scene of Maggie and Brick’s bedroom: the setting of the onstage action for the duration of the play. As I took in the beautifully lit and sumptuous white décor of the set, I began to anticipate the bloodshed to come, both physical and emotional, and the theatre was filled with dramatic tension before the performance had even begun.

The set remained unchanging throughout, as unrelenting and repetitive as the characters’ arguments and desperate clawing at resolution, while the physical discomfort inside the Mississippi Delta plantation home was successfully heightened by reminders of the stifling heat of the American South in summer: fans whirled on the ceiling and the characters were constantly wiping their brows, filling their glasses with ice or stepping in and out of the bedroom for air.

Though the tense atmosphere intended by Williams was well-achieved by set designer Mike Britton and by the actors’ performances, as the play progressed, additional attempts at emphasizing the claustrophobic, intrusive atmosphere fell short. For example, we frequently heard tape-recordings of children’s voices shouting offstage, but they were too repetitive to be believable and had a faraway quality, rather than being suggestive of a lively family party taking place in the house and gardens beyond the threshold of the bedroom. Perhaps if the bedroom set had included a section in which the balcony, and the characters thereupon, was shown in shadow, the bedroom would have felt less divorced from the larger household and the characters onstage more clearly influenced by those offstage.

There were also a couple of instances when those members of the cast who were not on the main stage appeared on the sidelines, in line with the audience, presumably in an attempt to show that the family were eavesdropping on each other, but this only occurred once or twice and thus felt arbitrary and not fully developed enough to be effective. Similarly, the children running in and out of the bedroom at random, crossing through the room from one balcony to the other, felt artificial and contrived, their presence no more than a device to symbolise constant intrusion upon the characters’ privacy, rather than to enhance the play’s realism in depicting a typically fraught family gathering of disparate and competing characters. Thus, these techniques lacked the nuance and naturalism that might otherwise have complemented the dramatic ambience created onstage, and thus slightly detracted from the production overall.

The performances were electrifying. Mariah Gale, as Maggie the Cat, begins with a near-fifteen-minute monologue of frantic talking at Brick (Charles Aitken), to which he largely remains unresponsive. This is a demanding scene for both actors, and they handle it very well. Although Mariah Gale’s ranting is a little atonal and on occasion too fast, sometimes only slowing down for the punchlines, her comic and dramatic timing were impeccable in drawing gasps and laughs from the audience. Daragh O’Malley owned the stage as Big Daddy, though I felt there could have been more references to his physical pain as a reminder of his terminal cancer – the crisis that brought the family together in the first place.

In Act 2, there was not a wandering eye in the house as we watched O’Malley and Aitken sparring, verbally and physically, showing great onstage chemistry. Aitken’s physical portrayal of the drunk and crippled Brick was almost balletic in its precision, while his depiction of the character’s stubborn avoidance yet emotional vulnerability showed great range, and held up to O’Malley’s booming and volatile, yet similarly fragile and desperate, performance. Meanwhile, the actors playing Gooper, Mae and Big Mamma also gave strong performances and served to lighten the atmosphere, providing relief from the emotional intensity of the dialogues between Brick, Maggie and Big Daddy. When the characters were finally all gathered together in the third act, the audience could breathe a small sigh of relief, though it did not last as the characters soon returned their focus to their objects of attraction or disgust.

The Southern accents were faultless, and though on occasion Mariah Gale’s voice and accent sounded a little strained, apart from talking herself hoarse in the first act this was likely deliberate, in order to show that Maggie’s is an acquired accent as a result of her acquired social status in marrying into Brick’s wealthy family. None of the cast of this production holds back from meeting the dramatic demands of Williams’ characteristic larger-than-life characters, and each portrays their character’s well-defined role within the family with unwavering vigour.

The action takes place over one evening, and this was indicated by the gradual dimming of the lights and the clock striking the hour, which gave the sense that the characters were going to fret themselves to exhaustion. Though the play at times felt uncomfortably long, when it was over the unrelenting conflict and lack of resolution maintained throughout left one feeling as if a cyclone had zipped in and out of the theatre, without taking with it the characters’ original problems. Keeping to Williams’s original version, the final scene was morbidly arresting, as opposed to the softer ending of the Hollywood film in which the main characters have moved towards a clearer resolution and, most indicative of the time, the heterosexual norm is re-established. Instead, we are left with the feline silhouette of Maggie the Cat kneeling behind Brick, having at last gotten him onto the bed. Thus, the cat has landed on her feet, finally able to withstand the hot tin roof, and Brick’s shoulders slump in defeat. As we watch Maggie pawing Brick’s back in the darkness and hear Big Daddy’s screams of pain and anger offstage, we are left with the charm of the undefeated, but still it is easy to imagine the same dramas replaying the next day.

The central themes of repressed sexuality and patriarchy may not be as relevant today, but the frustrated desires embodied by these characters and the conflicting family relationships are timeless issues we can all relate to. If you have seen the film, you will still have a new experience of the story and its characters through this production, as director James Dacre remains loyal to Williams’s original version of Act 3, and having seen both the play and the film, I believe Dacre made the right choice.

Emma Rhys

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