Maidment Theatre
July 10-August 2 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

IN THIS revival of the classic play by Tennessee Williams, the action is transposed from a 1950’s Missipippi river estate to a modern day “hotel”, complete with designer furniture (promoted in the programme!), plastic walls and obeisant hotel staff. The reasons for this staging decision are never entirely justified, and I found myself confused as to which era this play was set - the dialogue and themes seeming to refer more to the original 1950’s while the set and soundtrack suggested a contemporary setting. Apart from this distraction, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof retains its original power as a study in human relationships, focussing on two pairs in particular: frigid Brick and his lustful wife Maggie, and Brick and his dying father, the patriarch Big Daddy.

Maggie, played by a husky-voiced Toni Potter, is a woman in her prime: emotionally and sexually thwarted by her husband Brick, a former sports star who is physically and emotionally injured. It takes most of the play to reveal why Brick (as stubborn and taciturn as his name suggests) is shutting Maggie out. Gareth Reeves conveys Brick’s emotions effectively in the lift of an eyebrow or sip of a glass, whilst Potter, in a nearly continuous 45-minute harangue, is effective in alternately seducing and repelling the audience as we learn more about Maggie’s background and her precarious position as the poor outsider in a rich family, the “cat on a hot tin roof”. This powerful image is used repeatedly throughout the play, uniting the big-picture themes of greed, love and deceit.

Pace was an issue in the first half. Forty five minutes is a long time to hold an audience in a single scene and occasionally Potter seems to struggle to hold Maggie on track, resorting to what looks like highly uncomfortable poses atop the giant sofa. However, when Potter and Reeves are joined by the other actors in Act II, the plot gains momentum and soon becomes compelling.

Big Daddy, who we are prepared to dislike before his entrance in Act II, is given a sympathetic and powerfully understated portrayal by Stuart Devenie. The scene in which he has a long conversation with Brick, forcing him to confront his own demons, is powerful and absorbing. Alison Quigan does a wonderfully comedic turn as Big Mamma and pulls off some of the best lines in the play as well. Her “you do love me, don’t you?” to Big Daddy allows her a rare moment of pathos. Paul Glover and Jacque Drew do an efficient job of portraying repulsive characters who finally get their comeuppance, and their “no-neck” brood is cutely played by child actors who all get their own lines. I found it sad that Goretti Chadwick and Edward Peni, who have proven their acting prowess in other productions, were given roles that amounted to being extras – and what was with the brown people being the servants? Was this supposed to reference the racism of the old South? Yet another confusing thing that didn’t allow me to ground the play in any single time and place.

The use of American accents was distracting because of their patchiness – some cast members affecting a full southern drawl while others had the lightest of rounded r’s superimposed on a Kiwi accent. Accents sometimes unexpectedly dropped out. Given the transposition to an indistinct time and place, I wonder whether they were even necessary.

The set and lighting design by Tony Rabbit was innovative, with layers of plastic sheeting showing people walking through other spaces, approaching or watching. This was intended to be a metaphor for the layers of mendacity and obfuscation, and to a large extent it worked well, though seeing other characters wander past in the middle of an intense exchange could be distracting if not confusing.

All in all, a competent, rather than stunning, interpretation of an old masterwork – but one that should hold audiences long enough for Williams’ words to work their magic.