Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Royal and Derngate, Northampton)
James Dacre's production 'has a sultry heat and simmering tension'
Acknowledged by its author Tennessee Williams as his favourite among his own plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was made into an iconic movie starring Liz Taylor and Paul Newman. You might think this would be a tough act to follow, but James Dacre's production has a sultry heat and simmering tension all of its own.
Co-produced with Newcastle's Northern Stage - where it has already played - and Manchester's Royal Exchange, where it goes next, this Royal & Derngate show recreates the 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation home of Big Daddy and his imploding family with glaring precision.
The stark, gleaming white design by Mike Britton serves a doubly important purpose, providing a minimalist yet luxurious backdrop to throw the focus onto the words and action, but also, with its shadowy louvres, caging in the characters and hemming them into their disintegrating world.
With the original Big Daddy, Daragh O'Malley, indisposed through ill health, Terence Wilton steps manfully into the breach, script in hand but still giving a powerful performance as the patriarch battling with a possible diagnosis of cancer. Charles Aitken is beautifully restrained his alcoholic son Brick, struggling with a few demons of his own, while Matthew Douglas offers a neat counterpoint as the upright, legalistic older brother Gooper. There's fine support, too, from Kim Criswell as Big Mama and Victoria Elliott as Gooper's wife Mae.
The production relies, in the end, on Brick's relationship with his wife Maggie, the Cat of the title, and here Mariah Gale gives a brittle, subtle performance that veers from feisty fighter to fragile ingénue barely able to hold herself together, let alone her marriage. The interplay with Brick is sometimes a little drawn out, like the drawling Southern accent, but there's electricity, if not repressed sensuality, between the two of them.
It's not an easy watch. Partly due to the inherent uncertainty of a stand-in Big Daddy and partly to the grim, relentless bickering, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. But as a rendering of Williams' bleak view of family collapse, it does a sound enough job.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, until 18 October 2014