Reviewed by John McKeown
Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is far from being a subdued or quiet piece of work. It’s a bubbling cauldron of squabbling, back-stabbing, and outright recrimination, in the mansion of the patriarchal Big Daddy, on the night his family celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. Big Daddy, unknown to himself, has terminal cancer, and hasn’t yet made his will. One of the two sons is set to inherit 28,000 acres of prime farm-land in the Mississippi Delta.
The play’s vibrant display of indoor fireworks isn’t short of explosions, but the cast of Mark Brokaw’s production provide a sustained assault on the ear-drums that can be quite nerve-shredding. They all, almost invariably, act as if a Southern drawl has to be yelled to be believed.
Maggie ‘The Cat’ played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy, is the proud owner of a rasping falsetto which allows for precious little modulation of tone. Her self-confessed aim is to win back the heart of husband Brick, steadily drinking until he hears the ‘click’ in his head which initiates the onset of oblivion. As she’s thus laid her cards on the table she has to play them as seductively and subtly as possible, but that rasping tone, and the statuesque poses she keeps striking – arms outstretched like a windmill is a favourite - are the precise opposite of the voluptuously feral feline grace required.
Brick, played by Richard Flood in his Gate Theatre debut, exhibits a disappointing lack of presence throughout Act One, though there are attractive traces of that ‘charm of the defeated’ that gets Maggie so hot under the cat-collar. Between hobbling to the whiskey tray on his crutches, gulping the booze, and weathering Maggie’s interminable verbal storm-fronts, Brick has few good lines, but when they come they have to be delivered with more of an acerbic sting, more sense of someone’s acutely sore spot being trodden on, than Flood displays.
Brokaw’s production makes another big misstep in having Act Two, like Act One, set in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom. It does add to the sweaty claustrophobia to some degree, but, like the endless shouting, it goes against a vital grain of the drama itself. One of Brick’s brother Gooper’s and sister-in-law Mae’s main weapons against Maggie’s bid for ascendancy with Big Daddy is that her and Brick are childless, in fact, they know, from nightly acts of espionage, that Brick and Maggie don’t even sleep together. Maggie simply wouldn’t tolerate her in-laws and the friends of the family gathering around her and Brick’s failed marriage bed.
Act Two’s opening minutes are overcrowded and I had the dizzying feeling that the whole thing was spiralling into farce. Thank Tennessee for Owen Roe!
Roe’s Big Daddy is the anchor that weights and redeems the production. His is a truly compelling, authoritative portrait of this vital, visceral self-made man, revelling in a new surge of self-belief and power in the conviction that his last, exhaustive medical tests show he has nothing worse than a ‘spastic colon’. ‘The sky is open again!’ he yells. But when Roe yells, I’m thrilled rather than wincing.
His performance acts like a magnet drawing the best out of those around him. Flood rises to his standard, the noxiously affectionate Big Mamma, played by Marion O’Dwyer, proves herself to be human, and as unforgiving with ‘mendacity’ as Big Daddy. Even the gratingly frenetic Maggie becomes palatable, mostly by being neutered by Roe’s overwhelming Caesarean dominance.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues in the Gate Theatre until 18th June.