In its time Tennessee Williams‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat On A Hot Tin Roof has been wildly controversial and explicitly shocking.
I came away from James Dacre’s production at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre profoundly disappointed and a touch bored by his vision of the drama.
It didn’t help that a key figure was indisposed – such a Williams’ word from the Deep South – and was substituted by an actor who, thrust into the play at a moment’s notice, was forced to read the part from the script.
But more than anything there was a sense that this was a missed opportunity by co-producers Royal & Derngate, Northern Stage and Royal Exchange Theatre.
Tennessee Williams writes about the people, places and events in the South with an unbridled passion. You can feel the heat burning through every scene.
It’s something the repressed Brits have been unable to comprehend and replicate in their writing. While our characters maintain a stiff upper lip, his can barely keep their hands off each other.
The play caused an outrage when it was first performed as it featured blasphemy and the merest hint of homosexuality but the years have blunted its shock value.
Cat is set, circa 1954, in the bed-sitting room of a Mississippi plantation run by Big Daddy, a boorish pig of a man who hates and distrusts everyone, including his wife (Big Mama).
But he has a soft spot for his troubled youngest son, Brick (who names their son Brick for god’s sake? No wonder he has sexual hang-ups).
The former football player, injured in a drunken night out, is now a brooding alcoholic who spends his days at the bottom of a bottle.
Trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage to Maggie (the Cat of the title) he consumes, what in real life, would be a super-human amount of alcohol. Somehow he makes it through the two hour play without passing out. What a constitution.
Charles Aitken began shocking (or exciting) the old ladies in the audience by appearing naked in the shower during the opening scene. Mind you he was tastefully hidden behind a louvre window.
For the rest of the performance he snarls, abuses his wife and hobbles around the set with one foot in plaster. He is simmering with resentment and anger and unable to talk to anyone.
Mariah Gale is lost as Maggie. It takes some minutes before her heavy accent makes any sense but her performance fails to ignite even in the most explosive of confrontations with her husband.
Maggie comes across as bored rather than sexually frustrated and pretty soon you couldn’t care less.
It’s Big Daddy’s 65th birthday and he gets the news that fears he may have terminal cancer are wildly exaggerated.
“I’m back in the driving seat,” he roars and announces to his disinterested son that he intends to live life to the full.
The central part of the play is an attempt by Big Daddy to have a meaningful heart-to-heart with Brick.
Unfortunately Daragh O’Malley was ill and his place, last night, as the patriarchal plantation owner was taken by Terence Wilson.
He did his best but the accent was poor and the delivery halting, understandably as he had to refer to his script.
There were fine turns from Kim Criswell as Big Mama, a woman struggling to keep the family together despite the withering put-downs and abuse from her husband.
And Matthew Douglas and Victoria Elliott as Brick’s older, less loved, brother Gooper (really?) and his fertile wife Mae, are a treat.
The pure white set, designed by Mike Britton, was too clinical and clean to suggest the steamy heat of a Deep South Plantation. It certainly suggested sterility but wrong for a story supposedly seeped in raw emotion.
Perhaps it was British repression creeping into the production but I yearned for passion and a deeper rage which never materialised.