Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange, Manchester
March 24-April 29, 2023: 3 hrs 10 mins
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a bleak and depressing story of collapsing family relationships, with only intermittent comic touches, and the fact that director Roy Alexander Weise and his cast do their very best to enliven it cannot entirely compensate for its grimness.
They’ve brought it into the present: that’s an achievement with a text that is so clearly of its time – a time when same-sex attraction could hardly be spoken of and its reality had to be hinted at, and denied whenever the subject explicitly arose.
Colour-blind casting seems to make it credible to find members of a moneyed family hiding truth from each other at every turn (which is a very questionable thing to say, of course), but the Deep South American setting is made the more real, with almost every voice in the thick drawl that transports us there.
The big lie we see finally busted is that the family’s father figure, Big Daddy, has cancer but his children won’t tell him. Big Mama, his wife, believes the opposite. His favoured son, Brick, is an alcoholic, a former sportsman now reduced to commentating and injured when we see him – he’s in a sexless marriage with Maggie (the Cat of the title), and they have no children.
His other son, successful lawyer Gooper and his wife Mae, are highly productive in every sense, and see their chance to get their hands on the old man’s money when he dies. The first Act explores the superficial courtesy and feigned empathies we associate with the South, but it’s not long (well, actually it is long, as this is a long play) before the gloves come off and reality bites.
In Milla Clarke’s design there’s not a lot to look at on the open acting area of the Royal Exchange, except a double bed and hints at furniture, with the whole revolving slowly. Overhead there’s a kind of giant cot mobile incorporating one lamp (presumably to make sense of the line that references a chandelier): the only illustration of the opulent house in which the play happens is through an improbably-supposed birthday cake model of it that descends from on high.
So everything is focused on the actors and their lines. There are lines from Big Daddy about money and mortality that Patrick Robinson makes memorable: “The human animal is a beast that dies… he buys and buys… the one thing he wants to buy is everlasting life”. There’s a virtuoso opening monologue from Maggie, which Ntombizodwa Ndlovu makes both engaging and funny, and she brings most of the lighter touches as the play goes on with a look, a toss of the head or a pose.
Jacqui Dubois (Big Mama) is among the most real of them: the mother who tries to hold everything together and has both despair and authority in her soul.
Bayo Gbadamosi is brilliant at imitating the alcoholic fug that envelops Brick – it’s not an easy role, but he gets a kind of honesty into it of the sort liquor can release. The other roles – Daniel Ward’s Gooper, Danielle Henry’s Mae, Bruce McGregor as Reverend Tooker, and Lucas Cheong Smith as the doctor – are not the stuff of developed characterisation and sometimes verge on caricature.
There’s a lot of attention to the creation of atmosphere – haze and sound from the supposed world outside the room, and some very well done a-capella choral singing including Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down (a variant on a traditional spiritual) – but somehow, it doesn’t all come together.
More info and tickets here