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1st April 2023

Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a frustrating theatre-going experience which takes big swings but, more often than not, misses its mark
Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Photo: Helen Murray @ Royal Exchange Manchester

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the latest production to occupy Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, is a toothless, messy, and frustrating affair which takes big swings but, more often than not, misses its mark.

Adapted from Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof depicts the Pollitts, a wealthy planter family in the Mississippi Delta, as they gather for patriarch Big Daddy’s birthday celebrations. The play’s central premise is as follows: Big Daddy (Patrick Robinson) is dying of cancer and everybody knows it, except, that is, Big Daddy and his wife Big Mama (Jacqui Dubois).

Meanwhile, Pollitt’s younger son, Brick (Bayo Gbadamosi), has descended into depression and alcoholism due to a failed football career whilst his unfulfilled wife Maggie (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu) schemes against elder son Gooper (Daniel Ward) and his wife Mae (Danielle Henry) for control of Big Daddy’s fortune. Over the course of a hot summer’s evening relationships are tested and secrets revealed, exposing the ugly truths at the family’s core.

Although Williams’ original text was set in the 1950s, director Roy Alexander Weise opted to transpose the play onto a contemporary setting, leaving the end result with a lot to be desired. The set was dressed as a single bedroom complete with modern furnishings, using beads to represent doors accompanied by mismatched costumes and confusing props. Whilst the dialogue largely stuck to Williams’ source material (or, rather, his 1974 revised edition), the set, costuming, and props (alongside odd music choices) contradicted this, muddying the play’s sense of time and space.

Weise’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof thus exists in a contextual vacuum, a place that is simultaneously 2023 Britain and 1950s America, a place where 50 Cent and Rhianna exist alongside rotary phones and top hats. William’s rich source material weaves classic themes like greed, mendacity, and death with commentaries on homosexuality and legacy, crafting a powerful drama in its wake but, unfortunately, Weise’s choices deprive the play of much of its power, confusing the audience, and squandering drama at crucial moments.

Ntombizodwa Ndlovu as Maggie during the play’s first act
Photo: Helen Murray @ Royal Exchange Manchester

A sense of time and space is crucial to a text’s impact, especially a classic drama like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Context gives a story meaning beyond pure entertainment; the best dramas seek to inform their audiences and articulate conscious points through their narratives, not in spite of them. By intentionally placing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a contextual vacuum, Weise removes much of its meaning, leaving a messy abstraction in place of a focused drama. Modernising and updating plays should be welcomed and can often create new meaning for canonical texts but Weise never fully commits to these updates, making Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a Frankenstein’s monster of styles and stories which collapses in on itself more than it succeeds in enlightening the audience’s minds.

Moreover, removing a play from its context essentially nullifies its themes. If the story is set in 2023 then Brick’s closeted homosexuality is shocking to neither the characters nor the audience. Whilst clearly still an issue, the past 10-20 years has seen tolerance of minorities and marginalised peoples improve drastically, especially compared to the days of Tennessee Williams, so a storyline surrounding repressed sexuality needs to be more than just a subplot.

Interestingly, the Royal Exchange’s production also ‘race-flips’ the cast, making the principal characters Black when they were once originally white. Whilst the ensemble assembled certainly gives the material their all, particularly the standout performances of Patrick Robinson as Big Daddy and Bayo Gbadamosi as Brick, the drama once again falls short as nothing is actually done with this bold approach to a play about the DNA and legacy of Antebellum America.

Given the Royal Exchange’s history as a cotton exchange and Manchester’s wider history with slavery being explored in more depth recently, this feels like a missed opportunity to really examine the lasting power of capital acquired through cotton and how it manifests itself through generational wealth and continued income inequality – the former again being very much at the centre of Williams’ writing.

Of course, making a majority-white play with a (nearly) all-Black cast doesn’t have to be a grand political statement. Sometimes blind casting or just representation for representation’s sake can work wonders for a classic drama but, in the case of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where geography is such an important part of the characters attitudes and even the writer’s influences, removing it from its political context once again softens its blows. Hard-hitting scenes like when Big Daddy confronts Brick about his drinking and alleged homosexuality are called into question as the narrative’s logic unravels, confusing the audience when it should be immersing them.

Admittedly, the above example was actually a highlight of the play – but only due to the strength of Williams’ writing and the two actors’ performances, without which the cracks in Weise’s temporal façade would have been exposed more easily.

Big Daddy (Patrick Robinson) confronts his son Brick (Bayo Gbadamosi) about his closeted homosexuality
Photo: Helen Murray @ Royal Exchange Manchester

Other elements of the production which worked better were its lighting and, as previously mentioned, the performances. Where the set caused confusion the lighting perfectly aided atmosphere. As the drama got heavier and tensions increased the lighting became harsher, casting more shadows to match the feeling of impending death.

Lighting Designer Lizzie Powell did an excellent job, managing to evoke the feeling of a hot summer evening without using cold lights. Just like the drama, the lighting subtly simmered until it reached its boiling point, bathing the stage in perfectly-timed blackouts or ever-increasing spotlights.

Powell’s lighting allowed the performances to shine (pun intended), with each actor embodying their characters; although it must be said their chemistry flowed better in separate duologues than it did as an ensemble. Jacqui Duboi’s performance as Big Mama was perhaps the most expressive of them all, her grand gestures and powerful voice filling the Exchange’s stage. The ensemble also used the space impressively, managing to make the in-the-round theatre feel bigger than it actually was.

However, the Royal Exchange was clearly the wrong theatre for this type of production. Often the set would obscure the audience’s view and the circular stage meant the actors’ backs were always turned to at least half the theatre, neutering the drama and concealing the facial expressions key to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s claustrophobia.

Odd sound choices also contributed to the poor production, with contemporary music playing at bizarre moments to the point where I was unsure if it was intentional or just unfortunate intruding noises from outside.

Jacqui Dubois (left) and Danielle Henry (right) as Big Mama and Mae
Photo: Helen Murray @ Royal Exchange Manchester

A final gripe I had with the production was the over-emphasis of humour, with witty one-liners often played for belly laughs, disrupting the play’s flow like a bad stand up comic waiting desperately for their audience to at least snigger in sympathy. In all fairness, a substantial swathe of the audience laughed along, although the tendency to use quips as the sole source of humour is a worrying trend across film and theatre. My colleague, The Mancunion’s former Film Editor Benjy Klauber-Griffiths, whom I watched the play with, informed me afterwards that whilst Williams’ writing contains humour the exaggerated one-liners were clearly a director’s choice, contributing to the sense of frustration that ran throughout the play.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains, almost 70 years later, an insightful and tragic exploration of man’s shortcomings; its ultimate beauty lies in its honest truth: man is both ugly and afraid, a universal feature of an insecure species. Tennessee Williams’ drama encapsulates these ideas, bringing to the forefront a fascinating array of characters and thought-provoking themes which inspire self-reflection and a mediation on our histories, interrogating the nature of both man and his materials – qualities making Roy Alexander Weise’s production a profound disappointment and frustrating theatre-going experience.

Despite a great cast and clear backstage talent, the Royal Exchange’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is fundamentally flawed; an apolitical endeavour which deprives the play of its power and poignancy. Whilst it contains moments of greatness and made for an interesting watch, Weise’s adaptation is ultimately a subpar production of a superb play, undermined by a director more interested in bringing something new to the table instead of constructing a solid foundation for his creations.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until April 29.

Joe McFadden

Joe McFadden

Managing Editor (2022/23) | Highly Commended for Outstanding Commitment in the North (SPA Regional Awards 2023) | Highly Commended Best Arts & Culture piece in the UK (SPA National Awards 2023) | Shortlisted for Best Reporter in the UK (SPA National Awards 2021)

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