Review: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Peter Forbes (Big Daddy) and Oliver Johnstone (Brick) - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photography by Marc Brenner
Date: 24/09/2021

Burl Ives, Paul Newman and Liz Taylor cast a long shadow over any new production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Playing one of theatre’s – and cinema’s – most dysfunctional families, they almost wrote the book on familial melodrama and it’s possible to see Tennessee Williams’ sweat-soaked study of grief, loss and repressed emotions in a lot of what has followed.

Williams disliked the film as it stripped out a lot of what the play is fundamentally about, namely the homosexuality – or belief in the homosexuality – of one of its leads: liquor-soaked, broken-down athlete Brick. But whatever he is repressing it’s nothing compared to the spitting, purring, Maggie – his in-heat wife coveting her share of the family silver and a portion of something else her husband is denying her.

OIiver Johnstone (Brick) and Siena Kelly (Maggie) - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photography by Marc Brenner

As a backdrop to this matrimonial disharmony is a wrangle over who gets to inherit some of the most fertile land this side of the Nile. Family patriarch Big Daddy is stricken with cancer – though his family haven’t told him – and the descendants are jostling for position to inherit his fortune.

Peter Forbes really drives the story along when he arrives as Big Daddy, hunched and stooped but still a fearsome presence, he’s like a wrecking ball clad in Levi’s, held together by a too-tight belt. He dominates the stage as he dominates the narrative, trying to make sense of what he’s happened to his son and what’s occurring around him. During he interval he sits at the side of the stage, breathing heavily, and staring upwards, quizzically at this diffident son.

Oliver Johnstone as Brick wrings a lot out of his face, taking a leaf out of Paul Newman’s book with a pleasingly understated performance. He feels like he’d amble out of the story itself if he could. Siena Kelly as Maggie is slinky, sensual: she has moments of explosive sexuality and frustration here but her role seems diminished.

So too are the supporting cast who deliver some belly laughs as much as they do tragedy. Anthony Almeida has brought a lot to this new production – an insistent sound bed, stifling voiles and brilliant rectangle of colour, against which characters make their entrance and exits – but it arguably gets in the way of the text.

Nevertheless this is a superior production that doesn’t offer anything as simple as a happy ending. Has Brick come to terms with his loss, his confusion? And has Maggie wrenched her husband back from the brink? Brick and Big Daddy spend the play decrying mendacity – but Cat On A Hot Tin Roof ends with both embracing perhaps the biggest lie of all.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Liverpool Playhouse
Until Saturday 2 October