On a hot evening in the Mississippi Delta, the Pollitt family gather to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday; however, not everyone, including Big Daddy, knows that this will be his final birthday as terminal cancer tightens its ugly grip on him. There are numerous secrets buried in the big old property to be teased out through more than a few drinks as harsh truths are revealed.
Jake Collyer is excellent in the role of Big Daddy, commanding the performance space with his powerful voice, superbly consistent accent, and the physicality of the larger-than-life patriarch contrasting with his imminent mortality as the cancer takes hold, equally as dynamic when Big Daddy holds court with his family and guests or the different ways that he interacts one-on-one with his wife or favourite son.
William Shere gives an impressively understated performance as Brick, this favourite son, an alcoholic ex-footballer drinking away a hidden pain, who doesn’t seem to care about anything but where the next drink is coming from. It isn’t as easy as it sounds to be completely still on stage, but he does this with conviction: contained, controlled, indifferent to his wife but totally focused throughout, actively listening, with an underlying potential violent streak in an abusive relationship always bubbling away.
Brick certainly doesn’t care for his wife Maggie, who is passionate enough for both of them and desperate for her husband’s love, despite Brick refusing intimacy with her. Samantha Sharp is very good indeed in this role as she runs the gamut of emotions, her facial expressions showing a real understanding of her character’s angst as the “cat on the hot tin roof”, her movements full of purpose and intent, her inner turmoil palpable.
There are also very good supporting role performances from Imy Brighty-Potts as Big Mama (Big Daddy’s long-suffering, submissive yet loyal wife, but otherwise a domineering matriarch to her sons and daughters-in-law), Rory Dick as the bitter overlooked son, Gooper, and in particular Millie Pike as his wife, Mae, especially when she is sniping at or having full blown verbal cat fights with childless Maggie.
Director Benjamin Stein (assisted by AD Fred Thornton) has brought together a striking production where the characters honestly interact with each other, often in very close physical proximity, natural movement is evident around the performance space and stage business is well crafted, with a good use of beats to change direction and dynamics. Communication is 93% non-verbal and these elements have all been brought to the fore through good, solid direction.
The simple but impressively styled black set, with plantation-styled furniture, practical lighting and haze, instantly sets up the atmosphere and location as being in the sultry Deep South from the moment you walk into the converted lecture theatre that is the University’s Annex Theatre; the intimate venue gives the audience a real fly-on-the wall perspective, while the costumes throughout help to reinforce the 1940s-50s period when the play is set. Subtleties in lighting and sound effects throughout also enhance the ambience in a most successful way.
Although some of the accents wander at times between Deep South and South Coast, with sometimes sharper diction and projection needed for lower voice registers and quieter moments (scripted stage whispers should still be audible), the entire cast make valiant efforts to keep the Southern American accents going. The narrative is a slow-burner as it explores the dynamics in the various relationships; the pace is appropriate to keep authenticity of slow Southern drawls and the directed pauses also help to increase the tension and drama of the piece, but perhaps sharper timing in interjections of the more heated conversations would tighten up the timing.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is one of those plays that I have always meant to see, but not quite managed to do so. Although it is a very long play (the programme quotes a running time of around 150 minutes with two short intervals, and the play did not finish until almost 10:50pm), the performances in Tennesse Williams’ epic story are so intense and absorbing that it truly doesn’t feel that long. SUSU Theatre Group’s production is well worth seeing, with the final performance this evening (11 May) at The Annex Theatre, Highfield Campus, University of Southampton at 7.30pm.