Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof @ The Royal Exchange, 04.11.14

There is a rather pleasing disconnection in seeing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, set in the sweltering deep south and with the word 'hot' in the title, on a cold, crisp November evening in Manchester, especially at the Exchange: the space was created for just this kind of drama, equal parts grandiose and intimate. The stage itself is a brilliant white, as is all the furniture, rather like an interior designer's idea of how heaven might appear. But, as we soon find out, for the play's protagonists this is very far from heaven indeed.

The action takes place on a plantation, where a family has gathered to celebrate patriarch Big Daddy's birthday. Brick (Charles Aitken) and his wife Maggie (Mariah Gale) have become cut off from one another, with Brick more in love with liquor than anything living. Meanwhile Brick's Brother Gooper (Matthew Douglas) and his wife Mae (Victoria Elliot) are doing their best to impress Big Daddy (Daragh O'Malley) and Big Mama (Kim Criswell) in order to secure a juicy inheritance. Self interest, self loathing and self pity collide and contort under one roof and, in the end, no one gets what they really want: happiness.

Although the play is 60 years old and set in the deep south the subject matter and dialogue feel relevant to a modern Manchester audience. The issues it addresses like mortality, sexuality and sibling rivalry are ones that people will no doubt find a way to fight over until the sun ceases to shine. The conflict between ambition and emotion is one that we all must struggle with at one time or another, and one that is dealt with devastatingly well by Williams, a writer with few equals when it comes to dysfunctional families.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not an easy play for actors as the scenes are long and the southern accent can be problematic. Therefore the Aitken's performance was particularly pleasing, as he created a seemingly effortless vacuum in Brick around which the other characters revolved. Gale made me feel more and more for her character Maggie as the play progressed, while Elliot and Douglas provided comedic support as the infuriatingly fertile Gooper and Mae. O'Malley as Big Daddy had commanding presence but struggled with the accent, which made some of the dialogue difficult to listen to.

Director James Dacre made good use of the Exchange's multiple levels, taking actors into the upper tiers to deliver lines and having them loom menacingly over your shoulder during dramatic moments, visually illustrating the inward pressure a family can exert on its members. The timing and arrangement of the group scenes was also very well done, as Dacre balanced the forces of the varying personalities and drew feeling and humour from them.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is an exceptional play, full of great lines and sensitive discussions of serious subjects. This production does it justice, but is not outstanding in itself: there were too many lulls, too many things that didn't quite work out for it to reach that rank. Satisfying never the less, this is a must for fans of Williams' work and worthwhile for those wanting to experience his brilliance for the first time.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Jonathan Kennan

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