Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the second Tennessee Williams play programmed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in the last six months, after The Glass Menagerie’s success in September last year. It is directed by co-artistic director Roy Alexander Weise, who will also direct the International Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting winning play Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play later this year.
The action happens in a bedroom shared by Maggie (Ntombizodwa Ndlovu) and Brick (Bayo Gbadamosi) in Brick’s family home on their plantation, the biggest this side of the Mississippi Delta. Hushed and dynamic conversations happen amidst Brick’s father, Big Daddy’s, 65th birthday party.
The opening scene between Brick and Maggie is almost dynamic and lengthy enough to support a whole play. In the scene, Brick, disarmed by a freshly broken ankle he got trying to relive his glory days as a high school football player, avoids his family downstairs and his wife, Maggie. Ndlovu’s Maggie supports most of the initial action in long, drawling monologues as her husband sits alone in the adjoining bathroom, which could have been tedious from a less talented actor, but Ndlovu’s stage presence and skill carries it through. Ndlovu shines as the clever, social climbing wife of a drunken privileged man-child and sets the tone of the play as a beautiful, funny (laugh-out-loud at parts) story clearly in the American Deep South.
Another standout performance is in the scene between Big Momma (Jacqui Dubois) and Big Daddy (Patrick Robinson), who beautifully portray the family dynamic that Brick grew up around. Also notable is the dynamic between Brick’s older brother Gooper (Daniel Ward) and his terminally pregnant wife Mae (Danielle Henry), who also play their own children (called no-neck monsters by Maggie). The contemporary music references (Maggie opens the play with an acapella rendition of Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna) bring you right back into reality: that the choice to have Black actors as these characters whose wealth is from the ownership of a plantation in the South is an intentional one.
Designer Milla Clarke uses a simple set: a round bed on the Exchange’s round stage, sitting itself on a shallow, padded almost-mattress and separated by long beaded curtains to indicate doorways. I suppose a play as well-known and celebrated as this doesn’t need much dressing up, but it takes a brave creative team and talented performers to build such an intricate and distant world as this with such a bare stage. It makes moments like lighting designer Lizzie Powell’s fireworks so beautiful. Simple colours flash on Robinson’s face in a lone moment of stillness in a way that leaves you breathless.
Roy Alexander Weise has taken a play from 1950s American Deep South and make it blindingly contemporary and authentic. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof took my breath away. The last play that brought me to my feet was the Royal Exchange’s production of The Mountaintop in 2021, also directed by Roy Alexander Weise and starring Ntombizodwa Ndlovu, so there must be something golden in that partnership. I’ve already booked tickets to see it again. I suggest you do the same.