Review – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Liverpool Playhouse

Oliver Johnstone and Sienna Kelly – Photo © Marc Brenner

Playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were very keen on providing extraordinarily prescriptive and lengthy notes for both set design and stage movement and, in Williams’ case, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was no exception. However, after a page and a half of very detailed notes for the designer he adds “The set should be far less realistic than I have so far implied… I think the walls below the ceiling should dissolve mysteriously into air” and “Above all the designer should take pains to give the actors room to move about freely… as if it were a set for a ballet”.

Director Anthony Almeida and designer Rosanna Vize have taken these caveats very much to heart in staging this new touring production of the play. The set is a black box with a raised walkway to the sides and back, and with one backlit opening in the centre of the rear wall. In the centre of the stage a fine voile curtain hangs from a circular track, creating a translucent, cylindrical enclosure within which a large part of the first act takes place. The only furniture is a single, plain table.

The barest minimum of essential props are used – a birthday cake, some balloons, Brick’s crutch, the ever-present liquor bottles – and much of the action that suggests props are performed with words only. Notably, if there’s a telephone conversation, there is no miming of a phone, just words spoken into the air. The effect of all this minimalism is to strip away almost everything but the words, and it is a technique that genuinely elevates the production. The text and the emptiness into which it is spoken becomes everything.

One of the key players in the show is not visible onstage – Ginny Schiller. The casting director is an unsung hero of many productions, and it is a part that has been played here to absolute perfection. An extraordinary cast of actors has been assembled and they are individually and collectively stunning. Siena Kelly and Oliver Johnstone are an outstanding pairing as Maggie and Brick, and Peter Forbes’ Big Daddy is colossal, but they are the only very visible tip of an iceberg of talent onstage.

Under Almeida’s direction the ensemble gives breathtaking clarity to the dialogue. For the most part the words are delivered with unhurried deliberation, and hang almost visibly in the air, but occasionally several characters speak at once in a choreographed cacophony that still allows the meaning to be clearly heard. Equally choreographed is the stage movement, bringing to mind again Williams’ design notes. At times characters in a direct interaction will be at opposite sides of the stage, highlighting the emotional distances between them. Frequently those not speaking are seen stalking the walkway in silent scrutiny, like a mute Greek chorus. Underpinning all of this is the thrumming pulse of a single cello in Giles Thomas’s mesmerising sonic backdrop.

Williams was right in feeling that the 1958 cinema adaptation diminished the work significantly, not only stripping out most of the anguish of Brick, but also feeling the need to placate the audience in added scenes of reconciliation with Big Daddy. Forbes and Johnstone’s performances here need no additional material to be able to show the love and respect they have for each other.

This is a beautifully focused reading of the play which shows with great transparency that, for all the tragedy and heartbreak in the narrative, the most important aspects of it are love and hope.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a co-production between Curve Leicester, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and English Touring Theatre. It runs at the Playhouse until 2nd October before continuing its tour to Canterbury, Ipswich, Mold and Southampton.

Star rating – 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith