It is a truly sweltering night at the Curve Theatre, Leicester to see this new adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ blistering classic, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and it proves to be more than a theatrically pathetic fallacy for this melting pot of a play. In both reality and in the intimate Curve Studio production, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof proves to be a claustrophobic and raw examination of a dysfunctional family and the lies they tell themselves. It’s hot stuff both outside and within the air conditioned confines of the Curve Studio.
Performed in the studio, which adds to the feeling of intimacy, the play opens with a gauze-like curtain hung in a circle, revealing Brick, a young man collapsed on a bed. Brick’s wife Maggie, prowls around the perimeter of the curtain like a caged tiger. At once seductive, then accusatory, then pleading. She is desperate for Brick’s attention and the more she tries, the more impenetrable he becomes. The containment the curtain provides hints at the privacy of a boudoir but its transparent quality makes it clear there are few secrets in this household.
The family are gathered for Big Daddy Pollit’s 65th birthday, but the celebrations are all posited on a lie. Bitterness, neglect and disappointment are at the heart of each of the relationships. Here is a family so entrenched in their flawed connections that they can’t escape, even when they desperately want, finally, to be honest, find comfort, or even care somewhat for each other.
Anthony Almeida’s direction reveals the enduring nature of the play and it’s themes by removing any reference to time period. Figures are constantly moving, turned away, fractured from each other, emphasising both isolation and lack of privacy, and constantly changing perspectives. The set by Rosanna Vize is sparse: the floor the colour akin to fresh blood, it’s shiny surface reflecting back at the contenders. Blank openings frame eaves-droppers and observers like family portraits with a torrid and unfathomable difference.
Colour in the costumes, by Sarah Mercadé, is used sparingly to strong effect. Maggie is in gold coloured silk, which ripples with her cat-like walk. Big Mama wears a structured dress in a rather unnatural pink with bright jewels, restrictive and glittering, all surface. The rest of the cast are in shades of grey and blue, giving emphasis to the women as objects of beauty, their real-life ‘costumes’ helping them ‘play the role’ of love, wife, mother.
Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Brick is barely contained. He teeters on the brink of grief and exhaustion, waiting for the relief of the ‘click’ in his head which alcohol brings. Tormented by his own guilt, his body shakes with tension. It feels a positive relief when he finally speaks the truth. Equally controlled, Siena Kelly as Maggie is temptress and provocateur, her heartfelt pleas for connection contrasted with cool calculation. Her sensuous physicality maintains her presence even when in the background.
Big Daddy’s relationship with Big Mama is another built on lies. Revelations shift the axis of power back and forth. Peter Forbes lends menace to the role of Big Daddy, but he transpires to be the one who is finally searching for some sort of truth. Teresa Banham as Big Mama is sharply focussed and restrained, her stiff posture hinting at hidden emotions and buried dreams.
Anthony Almeida is the winner of the 2019 Royal Theatrical Support Trust Sir Peter Hall Director Award, and this production becomes the prize: to create a new interpretation of a classic play, which will tour the UK. As he states in his Director’s Note, he has tried to remove the layers of ‘lacquer’ associated with the play through school syllabuses, previous productions and even the film. He has stripped it back to reveal the essential humanity within it, and presents a polished, abstracted version of the play. In doing so, ‘some’ of the heat and chemistry of the relationships gets lost, but the superbly crafted script still sparkles.