It was only as Mrs Chrisparkle and I were settling down in our stalls seats last Wednesday evening that I realised I’ve never actually seen a stage performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’d read it when I were a lad (I read almost Tennessee Williams plays when I was 16) and I saw the famous Laurence Olivier version on TV about the same time. It’s taken me several decades to rectify this omission. This play first arrived on Broadway in 1955, but it’s absolutely as relevant today as it was then, with its examination of a family on its knees in a desperate web of deceit.
Brick and Maggie are trapped in a loveless marriage at his parents’ plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Maggie feels the pressure from her overbearing mother-in-law, who’s desperate for yet another grandchild, and her irredeemably fecund sister-in-law who already has five “no-neck” children with another on the way. No wonder Maggie’s as jittery as a cat on a hot tin roof. She tries to work all her charm and womanly wiles to woo Brick into bed but he’s adamant that he has no intention of resurrecting their love life – so this baby is never going to appear under these circumstances. Maybe he’s gay, maybe he’s depressed; maybe he’s too much into his liquor to give a fig for anything else. Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s been undergoing medical treatment and the entire family are aware that he’s actually dying of cancer – apart from Big Mama and Big Daddy himself. How are the fortunes of Brick and Maggie’s marriage and Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage going to change during the course of this summer’s evening? This is definitely Tennessee Williams’ version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Relationships within the household will never be the same again by bedtime.
In a house where no doors are ever locked, there sure are a lot of secrets. What is it that has driven Brick to down almost three bottles of Bourbon during the course of the play? “Have you ever heard the word ‘mendacity’”? he asks his father, resulting in Big Daddy wanting to know who it is who might have lied to Brick. Brick confirms it’s “no one single person and no one lie”. And isn’t that the truth! Lies about the pretend happiness between Maggie and Brick. Lies about the solidity of Big Mama and Big Daddy’s marriage: “I haven’t been able to stand the sight, sound or smell of that woman for forty years now – even when I laid her!” Lies about the prognosis of Big Daddy’s medical condition. Lies about Big Daddy’s love for his grandkids (he doesn’t). The whole place is riddled with mendacity. Lying is the default setting for the entire household – as his father tells him “I’ve lived with mendacity, why can’t you live with it?” Brick drinks because he can see no way out of this; but Maggie, however, finds a way forward at the end of the play – even though it’s yet another lie.
This excellent production by the Royal and Derngate together with Northern Stage and the Royal Exchange sheds light on the darkness of this intense and disturbing play. Mike Britton’s stark design of white slatted walls suggests a cage from which the characters can’t escape – a world of black and white that allows neither the shades of grey of compromise nor the colours of real living; everything’s just harsh and clinical. Light bounces off the gleaming white furniture and walls in an illusion of happiness where in fact sadness reigns. The louvred walls suggest a lack of privacy as the light and sound of the fireworks invade the bedroom, whilst also providing a very neat representation of Brick and Maggie’s ensuite. R&D Artistic Director James Dacre and assistant director Dan Hutton take that setting and contrast it with the broken inhabitants of the household, creating some very striking images. Maggie flirtatiously prowling round Brick; Brick scrambling across the floor to keep hold of his crutch; the teeth-janglingly sweet “Skinamarinka” birthday greeting of the children that no one appreciates; the pathetic sight of Brick upended at the foot of the bed with burst pillow feathers falling everywhere like Paul Simon’s “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”. Visually this is a very impressive and memorable production.
There are some top quality performances too. We both felt Mariah Gale as Maggie was stunningly good in that opening scene that calls for so much expression and so many varieties of mood. It’s a cliché but she really does have to run the gamut from A to Z. We’d seen her in Proof but this role is much more suited to her. Wily, desperate, rejected, dismissive, snide, bitchy, yet always hopeful; Maggie has to be all of these and Miss Gale did it to perfection. Charles Aitken’s Brick was superbly dulled and damaged by the detritus of his friendship with Skipper, playing up with relish to the prospect of yet another Bourbon, allowing his spark to be snuffed out with the challenge of daily survival, but still snappy and aggressive in the face of too close an attack – very convincing. Kim Criswell is splendid as Big Mama – formidably menacing when she’s in charge, hopelessly lost when the ground beneath her gives way. Due to the indisposition of Daragh O’Malley, the role of Big Daddy was taken by Terence Wilton, text in hand. I think he’s been playing the role for quite a while now and is giving a rich and powerful performance, only occasionally needing to refer to the script. Such is the magic of theatre that this didn’t in any way spoil the whole effect. The rest of the cast give very good support, especially Victoria Elliott as a nicely waspish Mae and Matthew Douglas as a mildly Neanderthal Gooper. We saw Children Team A on the night we went and they were delightfully ghastly – good job done!
This is a very vivid production of Williams’ horrendously bleak drama that holds your attention throughout. After it finishes its run in Northampton it goes on to the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 29th November. Thought-provoking and hard-hitting – a very rewarding night at the theatre, and thoroughly recommended.