Structurally, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has more than its fair share of problems. As Gore Vidal perceptively noted, the first act should not work: it is long and drawn out and relies heavily on exposition. And at more than three hours long, the play requires a show of stamina from the audience.
But in this production at the Royal Exchange by Roy Alexander Weise, time is not an issue. Utilising Williams’ original script, with its liberal use of swearing and overt references to homosexuality, the production is alive and guttural. With a predominantly black casting, the drama is carried out in the confines of Brick and Maggie’s bedroom on Big Daddy’s cotton plantation – ‘the largest this side of the Mississippi Delta’ we are informed on more than one occasion.
The script is histrionic and overlong and Williams makes too much of his desire to expose what he sees as the human tendency towards mendacity, but Weise brings a freshness to the play by framing it as a family soap opera – EastEnders set in Tennessee perhaps? In the opening scene we see Maggie, lithe as a cat and full of life force, attempting to lure a drink-sodden Brick into bed so they can finally have the baby she so longs for. His brother and his wife – ‘sister woman’ – have been steadily producing ‘no neck’ children and are now reaching number six.
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu is superb as Maggie, at turns the skittish lover and gossipy wife, goading Brick into action so that he will not lose out in inheriting the plantation to his oafish brother, Gooper. She is constantly frustrated that her show of female desire is thrown back in her face by Brick, who is mourning the loss of his youthful football days and the ‘special’ friendship he had with Skip, the source of much innuendo and rumour.
The circular setting and slowly rotating design makes much play of the fact that family strife goes round in circles and never gets resolved. Brick, despite his surface differences to Big Daddy, exhibits the same disdain towards women but for different reasons. Patrick Robinson does not have the corpulence we have come to associate with Big Daddy but he nevertheless fills this role with a commanding presence: it is only at the end when the fateful diagnosis is delivered does his light begin to dim. It is not the cancer that is killing him so much as the family lies, he comes to realise.
Bayo Gbadamosi delivers us a Brick who is happy to go with the flow as, long as that is the flow of alcohol. His astute portrayal of a man who cannot accept his desires – and cannot accept the desires of others, such as Maggie – should provoke not just sympathy but an anger that Williams keenly felt about the hypocrisy of sexual mores.
The casting is not without political intent but the production does not score this too heavily: the politics of plantation ownership and slavery are the background rumble in this storm-damaged family.
Cat on a hot tin roof is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 24 March to 29 April 2023. Age guidance 12+
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