I’ll tell it to you straight – this is a cool, polished, calculated rendering of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it doesn’t carry conviction. The play begins as Big Daddy (Nick Davies) is celebrating his birthday at the heart of his massive plantation in the American South. He’s just received the news that his suspected cancer is only a case of ‘spastic colon’ (a phrase playfully enunciated by the actors), but the party couldn’t be more joyless. His son, Brick (Ed Price), an injured ex-football-player, has turned to the bottle to escape from a childless and failing marriage, and Big Daddy’s two daughters-in-law are fighting like cats for his inheritance. But these are only the symptoms of a deeper malaise: everyone in the family is lying to each other.
The opening scene sets the pattern for the play. The self-consciously saucy Maggie tries desperately to get her husband’s attention, but Brick is uninterested, and unmoved. A deceptively familiar domestic scene, you might think, but it turns out to conceal an unusually dark back-story. There is a tragic history behind Brick’s obdurate deafness first to his wife and later to his father. Brick is coldly indifferent to the frantic appeals of Maggie and Big Daddy, and the scenes with this dynamic are the best of the play. Maggie (Ella Waldman) has only one audience, Brick; and in her eagerness to please, she’ll play any part. Her husband remains frigidly impassive; but, as she says, other men are not so impervious to her charms. I couldn’t help zooming in, as she flitted deftly from one mood to next. The subtle emotional shading of her expressions is worthy of the big-screen.
Brick lives up to his name, insolently detached and disengaged – but that’s only half the role. Brick also has his own story of disillusionment to tell. Price’s vacant glaze, so effective for his passive scenes, doesn’t convince us of even jaded “disgust”. Aside from a few moments of glassy-eyed rage, Brick doesn’t seem emotionally invested in his rants against hypocrisy. This is helped by a relentless Southern drawl which smothers the nuances of his indignation.
This version of A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is played with an ironic detachment, but the odour of mendacity is faint and tired, not ‘powerful and obnoxious’. As a result, strong individual acting from all the major characters is strangely misdirected, and even the conceits of the plot seem only half-believed, and half-believable. In the end, if I came to sympathise with anyone, it was Brick, the bored, and slightly boring alcoholic, who is waiting in vain for things to click in his head. Waldman must be commended too – she gives a hot performance on a tepid roof.
*** (3 Stars)