English Touring Theatre production seen in Southampton.
Tennessee Williams had few successful plays, and Cat on a Hot Tin roof made the cut. Focused on family life on a Southern plantation, the play explores the idea of helplessness in trying to help and frustrating communication.
The English Touring Theatre Company, in collaboration with the Everyman Theatre Liverpool have done a good job at capturing the intensity of a family straining for power with this play. The tension is held nicely throughout the play with the use of sound - a track plays, with plucked strings indicating the passing of time. After the interval, this track was reversed to give a recap - a delicate way to direct audience perception. Sound was craftily used in the production with few, but effective, external interjections to the actors’ spoken work, mostly in the latter part of the play.
The cast definitely dominated the space and story, with voices balanced well and easy to hear in the auditorium. Peter Forbes’ ‘Big Daddy’ put forward a dominating force without shouting to breathlessness, Siena Kelly’s Maggie showed emotions impeccably through face, body and voice too. No wonder she is a 2021 BAFTA nominee. Forbes and Kelly really stole the show in my opinion, creating such strong focal points, and representing each of the play’s diverging storylines. I commend also Oliver Johnstone’s Brick, who believably and consistently sold us the story of his drunkenness without compromising his lines. All of this work created for a strong and easy to follow storyline, not to mention excellently elocuted American accents which were largely steady. Big Mama (Teresa Banham) also did a wonderfully believable job of showing us a mother and wife in crisis - both internally and externally.
The theme of communication in the play was realised multiply. The subtle blocking of the space left attention focused largely on speech, and the intimacy of the body language during conversation gave a voyeuristic feel. The ‘telephone calls’ to Sarah I originally found a little confusing, with boundaries between characters’ interactions somewhat unclear. However both of these aspects; the voyeurism and cacophony of noise (overlapping, chaotic voices were also used more explicitly), in retrospect completely added to the effect of the play. ‘The walls in this house have walls’ - we too are listening in just as Mas and Gooper do; everything is audible and inescapable. There is an involuntary transparency/openness to communication in the ‘house’.
This is further accentuated by an ambiguous performance space. A veil is used to separate Maggie and Brick at times, which they weave in, out and around - it comes between their marriage. Other than this, only a table and a few bottles and cups are used as props. Keeping things minimal on set focussed our attention on dialogue and showcased the talented acting going on.
However I sometimes felt the production value was a little lacklustre - it could have done more to uplift the people on stage, for example the shock of the interval reminded us that in family matters such as these, there is no natural break, and the crescendo of fireworks towards the end was also very effective.
Overall, ETT’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the MAST was composed of some beautifully talented actors, who were sometimes not highlighted as well as I’d have hoped by the production of the piece. I would also have liked a less subtle nod to queer struggle in the play, reminiscent of Williams' own life - I felt this production focussed more on Big Daddy than that key autobiographical insert from the writer. Overall though, I enjoyed this production and would return to see more from English Touring Theatre!