Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Delving into themes of repression, desire and grief, Tennessee William’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play explores the muddy motives of the Pollitt family, on the eve of the discovery of their patriarch’s terminal illness. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof focuses particularly on the decaying relationship between spouses Brick (Ben Johansson) and Maggie (Giorgia Laird) as they pick through their respective emotional and physical infidelity with Brick’s late long-term friend, Skipper. First Theatre Company’s performances stay tightly to the sweltering tension of the original text in a performance that allows their talented cast to shine. 

This play is a play of performances, and this production was no exception. It was a masterclass in character acting. The pace and density of the text are relentless, pauses are few and far between — even sitting in the audience is draining. And yet the cast was almost without fault, maintaining not only an accent but physicality and voice. Of particular note is Laird, whose execution of the opening act was breathtaking. Her range from devastation, to provocation, to flirtation created such horrendous tension that the moments of aching vulnerability where she desperately sought her husband’s attentions made the audience sure we were no longer supposed to be watching — and yet we could hardly tear our eyes away. Another particularly strong performer was Big Momma, Eleanor Sumner, who brought three-dimensional fruitless humanity to a character which had the potential to be left as comic relief. 

First-time directors Sherzadee Moeed and Rosa Abdel can only be commended for their dedication to the character in this production, and it was in this area their skill was clearest. There were moments of difficulty with blocking, where all characters remained standing and rooted on equal levels for uncomfortably long periods of time, but this was well set off by the emotional intelligence of production. We can only look forward to what comes next for this pair. 

As an ensemble, it was clear that the cast had bonded as they worked hard as a group to maintain that pace and chemistry

The chemistry between the actors was also outstanding. Whenever Laird and Darcy de Winter, who played her sister-in-law Mae, were on stage, the animosity between the pair crackled and sparked. Equally, the tension between Johansson and Jack Coombs, as Big Daddy, in the second act, as the pair attempted to say what had always otherwise been unsayable, was painful and recognisable. was also a notable standout, his Big Daddy’s blustering power tempered by a sense of melancholic loneliness. As an ensemble, it was clear that the cast had bonded as they worked hard as a group to maintain that pace and chemistry.

The only disappointment was between the two leads. It is fair to suggest that there should be no love and emotional contact between Brick and Maggie, but I wonder if I would have been able to humanise Brick a little better if I had understood how he and Skipper may have been together, or indeed why he and Maggie ever married at all. As the relationship stood in its disjointed and empty state, it was a wonder that Brick ever had attention from one individual, let alone competition. However, across the board in all other areas, the cast was remarkable together. 

The technical team were also strong. The lighting design by tech director Thea Nellis and execution by Sam Wong was subtle but well-managed, and the combination of the warm glow, which added to the atmosphere of the hot Southern evening, and the cold backlight, perfectly complemented the themes and action of the warring family. With the number of offstage lines, one can only imagine the importance of an organised and quick Stage Manager, so credit is due to and Alice Theakston.

The stripped-back appearance served to place the actors in the centre of the action, rather than the production value

The production team clearly worked hard to bring out the best performance from their actors. There was no attempt to modernise the setting by the creative team, and the set was simple and stripped back. It is true that it was hard to imagine the set pieces placed mechanistically in the four corners of the stage to represent the finest house in the state, but this can be easily understood by budget and time limitations. In fact, the stripped-back appearance served to place the actors in the centre of the action, rather than the production value.

In a similar vein, producer kept a financially limited show looking clean and well-planned by restricting the colour palette of the show down to the reds and monochromes, which complemented the lighting design well and allowed the performances of the actors to shine.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a tense and vulnerable exploration of some of the worst parts of human nature, and the production rightly places the genuinely exceptional actors at its heart.

Image: First Theatre Company

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