In the sweltering Mississippi Delta the distant Pollitt brothers, alcoholic Brick and straight-laced Gooper, return home to the family cotton plantation to celebrate the 65th birthday of their “Big Daddy”. The fearsome patriarch and his wife, Big Momma, being the only ones who don’t know that he is dying from cancer.
Over the course of the evening the Pollitts reveal themselves to be so dysfunctional as to make the Simpsons look like the Von Trapps. Brick and Maggie are locked in a loveless, sexless marriage, closely mirroring that of Big Daddy and Big Momma. Gooper, bitter over Big Daddy’s obvious favouritism for Brick, and his “good breeder” wife Mae connive a plan to get their hands on the family business and Big Daddy is brazen in his contempt for his wife and Gooper and in his love for Brick.
Talk, or more accurately gossip, is rife but honesty is rare. Lies are told upon lies and truths are denied, to the point where it is impossible to know with any certainty what is fact and what is fabrication. It is certainly clear that the distinction has blurred for several of the characters.
This is a faithful revival of Tennessee Williams' 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Everything looks and sounds right, in their handling of the southern drawl the cast score a points victory, Sarah Esdaile’s direction is fluid and focussed. However, something doesn’t quite hit home. As the emotions heighten through the 3 acts the drama doesn’t quite follow. The themes of repression, deceit, greed and mortality are all clearly realised but the crisis at the heart of this decaying family never completely translates.
Part of the problem is the clashing dynamics within the central relationships. As Brick’s cunning and aspirational wife Maggie, Zoe Boyle really goes to town on the sultry Southern Belle persona, she plays it big and bold and sexy. The performance holds together the first act but does clash against Jamie Parker’s portrayal of Brick who most of the time comes across as a petulant teenager. It’s a believable interpretation, after all Brick’s most defining moments, both good and bad, came as a teenage football star. It makes sense that he is still stranded there, unable or unwilling to address the guilt and disgust he feels over the death of his best friend and the feelings they had for each other. Good performances both, but as a believable couple, albeit poles apart, it doesn’t quite ring true.
Similarly, Richard Cordery is fittingly dominant as Big Daddy. This is a skilled, nuanced performance that deftly moves between rage and compassion, acceptance and denial but Amanda Boxer’s Big Momma is much more broad and theatrical. She elicits a high number of laughs from her highly-strung performance but the result is that the desperately sad and often violent clashes between her and Big Daddy don’t deliver the devastating impact they should.
There is so much good work on display here but the sum of the parts doesn’t quite equal the whole. For all the on-stage talk of heat one never truly feels it.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 27 October.