There's something very operatic about Tennessee Williams' dialogue in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, perhaps more so than in any of his other successful plays. Much of the action is carried forward in duet or trio form. Characters repeat sentences with subtle variations of the same speech. There is much overlapping of dialogue as interjections break across quite complex, plot-defining phrases.
Richard Baron's direction takes this on board and, as would a skilful conductor of a major music theatre ensemble, nuances the cast to its best advantage. This is abetted by Edward Lipscomb's baroque set, which is on view as we enter the auditorium. It's the flamboyant rococo of 18th century Paris - think Les Liaisons Dangereuses - set down, with 20th century conveniences, in the Deep South of the United States.
Dominating the cast is Lesley Harcourt's Maggie, the cat of the title. As she sets about excavating the wreck she herself has made of her marriage to Brick (Ben Hull), her verbal and physical preening and Southern-belle posing before Brick, his family the audience tears away to reveal the surface-corroded but far more understandable, even sympathetic, figure within.
It's a superb performance, well matched by that of Hull as the damaged (in soul as well as body) athlete drowning all his failures in whiskey. Because this is a story about the whole family as well as this particular couple, patriarch and matriarch Big Daddy and Big Mama also have the chance to take centre stage.
Rosemary Leach, purple-sequinned and unnaturally red-headed, is the ageing wife who has to come to terms with her husband's cancer and the fault lines in the personalities of both her sons. It's a bravura turn, not glossing over the elements which make Big Mama infuriating, while still creating real pathos as she confronts a disintegrated future.
Big Daddy has only the middle of the three acts, though he looms large throughout the play. William Gaunt gives us the self-made millionaire who can confront his own weaknesses clear-sightedly but flails in the emotional dark when trying to come to terms with those of others.
All wealthy families have parasites. Here they are elder son Gooper (Rory Murray) and his fecund wife Mae ([Jo Castleton)], not to mention their raucous brood of five (with another very visibly on its way into this greedy world).
Castleton and Murray define these two uptight leeches to perfection. These seven with the equally self-seeking assistance of Stephen Boswell's pastor and John Fleming's doctor provide the off and on stage chorus of the damming, if not the dammed.
Well, I did say it was operatic, didn't I?
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at Cambridge Arts Theatre)