Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Liverpool Playhouse ****
You wait for one play about simmering family secrets, lies and resentments exploding at a 65th birthday party – and then two come along in the space of a week.
But while at the Everyman the torrid emotions and bitter words tumble out against the cluttered backdrop of Sefton Coast domesticity, this revival of Tennessee Williams’ sultry Mississippi Delta story – an E&P co-production in residence at the Playhouse this week - is shorn of its usual Southern comfort and fussy furbelows.
Rosanna Vize’s stark staging gives us a wide-open space on a reflective deep red floor flanked by two curving low walls/walkways (from behind which Oliver Johnstone’s languid alcoholic Brick conjures an endless series of secreted bottles like a magician) and – at its centre - a full-length, semi-transparent gauze curtain which serves to hide, separate and stifle characters and emotions.
Upstage there is a single back-lit doorway.
It has the feel of an Athenian amphitheatre, which is apt as what is Williams’ play but Greek tragedy transplanted from Parthenon to plantation?
Here there is even a kind of chorus in the hangers on gathered at Big Daddy’s (Peter Forbes) birthday bash, albeit for the most part a silently watching one.
The lack of visual stimulation focuses our attention solely on the narrative and dialogue; it allows it to take on a more vivid and intense quality, although of course it also means there is nowhere to hide.
Above: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Top: Brick (Oliver Johnstone) and Maggie (Siena Kelly). Photos by Marc Brenner.
The dysfunctional Pollitt family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of its patriarch – but only he and his wife Big Mama (a sympathetic performance from Teresa Banham) are unaware of the diagnosis which means it will be his last.
Under Anthony Almeida’s award-winning direction there’s a suffocating, claustrophobic relentlessness to the first half as we’re plunged into the middle of the drama of Brick and his wife Maggie’s turbulent, fractured relationship.
Siena Kelly brings a physical feline quality to ‘Maggie the cat’, the wife driven by fear her husband’s capacity for love died with his ‘best friend’ Skipper and who wants to energise her silent, detached spouse into fighting for his imminent inheritance against the manoeuvres of his brother Gooper and fecund sister-in-law Mae.
The house is a simmering pressure cooker of secrets, delusion, self-deception, and what family favourite Brick – forced into a corner by Big Daddy’s persistence - is driven to denounce as “mendacity – liars and lies”.
And the oppressive atmosphere is further concentrated by Joshua Gadsby’s subdued lighting and a disconcerting, stifling soundscape from composer Giles Thomas.