Regional theatre was given a whole new market thanks to the opportunities created by digital streaming during the last 18-months, leading the way on audience engagement and the innovative development of filming techniques that made watching shows from home increasingly enjoyable and immersive. Now, it’s our turn to give back, taking the chance to support these reopened venues with in-person visits to theatres that made the London-centric sit up and finally take notice. With gripping screen-only productions of The Colour Purple and a particularly transformative Sunset Boulevard, the lure of Curve Leicester is increasingly irresistible.
The reason for this long overdue attendance, a searing production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the small studio space that absolutely burns with the fire and fury that the playwright built into this towering drama. Tight as a drum and thrumming with palpable tension, Anthony Almeida’s production, premiering at Curve before the English Touring Theatre take it to several other venues, is ferocious, a magnificent adaptation that follows other recent approaches to Williams by modernising the setting and focusing on the complex emotional intensity as a family combusts in front of us.
Previous attempts to place Williams’s work in a more contemporary or at least timeless setting have had mixed results; the Young Vic worked its magic with a 2014 version of A Streetcar Named Desire gratefully broadcast by National Theatre at Home last year, the Almeida too with that defining production of Summer and Smoke that did so much to revive the immediate potency of Williams’s emotional excavation. More recently, Hampstead Theatre’s pandemic-delayed version of The Two Character Play incorporated plenty of modern tricks and techniques but failed to lift this difficult work, while the most recent West End version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Benedict Andrews with a starry cast was a sorry, cold and lustless affair that confused nudity with chemistry.
So, Almeida’s production for Curve is an interesting lesson in how to take a beloved classic play, really strip it back to its essential characteristics using minimal staging and still hold on to all of the complex emotional currents, changes of direction and the bubbling tension that make it worth revisiting. There is, crucially, real danger here, it absolutely bristles with confrontational energy, that once-in-a-lifetime truth-telling session for the Pollitt family that was somehow inevitable but long delayed, as characters buried their feelings or hid from the truths they cannot bear to face. What Almeida brings to this revival is that feeling that its now or never for these people and once the storm plays out, everyone’s outlook will be forever different.
Because this is a play about the fight, everyone has an agenda, they all need something, a clarity that relies on someone else noticing them or being honest about what’s going on. And the audience sees, particularly in the stonking first half and the early part of the second, is that this is really high stakes stuff, and while Williams holds back some of the cards for later scenes, we come to realise that everyone has everything on the line on this fateful night that Almeida’s production rather gloriously brings to life.
And across the 2.5 hours of this story, there is very little relief, plunging the audience immediately into the marital troubles of Maggie and Brick and thereon holding our attention with an iron grip. Even the sudden interval which comes in the middle of the intensive and combative duologue between Brick and Dig Daddy gives little pause, leaving characters on stage before jumping right back into this full-throttle encounter without missing a beat – it is an extraordinary feat for the actors and demands an instant hush from an audience resettling after the break.
What this Curve and ETT revival does so well is to delineate the individual trajectories, opening with a forensic skill the wants of each character while still creating a consistent family dynamic – albeit a relatively dysfunctional one – and you believe in all of their ways of being. Williams, of course, shines the brightest spotlight on the central couple kept apart by sexual jealousy, resentment and self-loathing, inspired and fuelled by Brick’s alcoholism. Here, we are shown their parallel tracks as Maggie tries desperately to bring their paths back together. She is fighting for her marriage and a remembrance of the man she loved. It is a furious, desperate, scrappy business for her using every bit of her armoury from her body to various means of manipulation to get what she wants. Brick, by contrast, and arguably unrecognised by his wife, is actually fighting for his life, even more so than Big Daddy, almost letting it slip away but clinging to fragments of his own memories – the man he was, his athletic prowess and friendship. There are snatches when he looks at Maggie with something like his old feeling for her, amused, impressed, even proud of her resilience and determination.
Likewise, the relationship between Big Mama and Big Daddy feels crueller than ever, his lack of sympathy and bullying a clear template for his sons and their struggle to connect with or impress him. The volcanic rage he directs at everyone very occasionally appears in his sons while his wife silently accepts his bitter diatribes while trying to find comfort in noise, knowledge and the family she has endured so much to create and sustain. But she has strength too, a refusal to bend or break whatever direction the wind is coming from, quietly holding it all together. Meanwhile the obsequious Gooper and Mae seem far more sinister than previous productions, a pretence of happiness designed to sell Big Daddy a dream and reward them with his millions. The switch from kindness to cold, hard business in the penultimate scene is, therefore, rather chilling.
In staging this production, designer Rosanna Vize creates a simple but evocative space filled with places for characters to listen-in on each other’s conversations – a key theme in the play that contributes to the tight claustrophobic experience that Williams generates and so unnerves the protagonists. Initially played through a gauzy circular curtain surrounding Maggie and Brick’s bedroom, the hazy focus responds to their mismatched view of each other while creating a seductive feel to the their passionate opening conversation. The intrusion of other characters, Mae in particular who draws the curtain back, cuts through all of this to remove the filter, presaging what will become a night of revelation.
The combination of design and lighting creates an intense central playing space which seamlessly becomes the various locations. A raised edge doubles for the eavesdroppers’ balconies and Almeida uses these areas to emphasis moments of particular tension, silently lining-up the usually off-stage or unseen characters who observe the action, placing further pressure on the speakers who struggle to be honest without privacy, while continually drawing attention to the complex network of family and neighbours whose lives so completely intersect. It is notable that the church and medical profession are represented as the outside-insiders who become part of this household tonight but represent death and damnation that hangs over the Pollitts as their crisis ripens.
The staging, then, becomes both narratively functional and representational, allowing Almeida to create drive and drama in this soulless space of opaque materials and emptiness, but at the same time fill it with the emotional baggage and vast landscapes of Williams’s creations. Occasionally, the symbolism goes too far asking the audience to imagine phones that don’t exist or the cashmere robe Big Daddy is given for his birthday, but unlike Andrews’s interpretation whose windowless luxury sucked the soul from the drama, Almeida finds a wonderful and utterly compelling harmony within these contrasting elements, unleashing the very great power in one of Williams’s finest work and, with Joshua Gadsby’s lighting, create pace and evocative stage pictures that illuminate the work anew.
This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also owes much to its cast who find depth and resonance in their character to give them fresh appeal. Siena Kelly’s Maggie is both tenacious and vulnerable, driven by a need to make her marriage work that goes beyond the humiliation of failure to some almost romantic concept of destiny. But Kelly’s Maggie is an earthy creature, a woman open about her mistakes and failures but also her desires. Kelly carries herself so particularly, using her body and knowing its value as a communication tool, dressed in sensuous fabrics and prepared to grapple in the dust, pay whatever price and do whatever it takes to bend this family towards her.
Oliver Johnstone has been one to watch for some time with notable performances in the RSC’s Imperium and Cymbeline as well as All My Sons for the Old Vic. Here he gives his best performance yet as a deeply troubled and broken Brick Pollitt. There is such a desperate sorrow in Johnstone’s approach as his Brick becomes slowly more inebriated. But rightly, it never makes him pitiable or too empathetic. A character bent on his own destruction, there is a huge range here, disillusion turning to fury to amusement and attraction, despair, cruelty, disregard and even a hint of affection for his nephews that betrays his own desire for children, the chance that he and Maggie may really want the same thing after all. Johnstone holds the characterisation throughout, entirely immersed in the role, always reacting, responding or lost in Brick’s pain as he searches for release.
Peter Forbes as Big Daddy is equally strong, a self-made man who betrays his roots when a brush with death makes him vulnerable, something that manifests in his ebullience and need to re-establish control, making him a powerful and glowering presence while trying, like everyone else, to make sense of his life and its future direction. As Big Mama, Teresa Banham has less stage time as the men hammer-out their problems but the portrait of her marriage is vivid and while she may not have Maggie’s openness, Banham suggests a woman fighting in her own way for status and notice as a house full of domineering men consume all of the oxygen.
Curve Leicester is pushing boundaries with this version of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, combining a chic visual aesthetic that supports a deeply reflective take on a play that continues to yield new insights and surprises. Like Chichester with their divine South Pacific, this bold production at Curve Leicester shows that regional theatres have been quick off the starting blocks with imaginative and smart new work that, even accounting for the train ticket, costs less than a top West End seat. Having enjoyed several virtual visits during lockdown, a live one was long overdue and hugely rewarding.