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QTC/Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – A review

Among amateur theatre companies Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is something of a staple – the Brisbane Arts Theatre, for example, staged two productions within 10 years of each other. And with good reason, the roles – by virtue of Tennessee William’s exquisite writing – are virtually actor proof (providing the southern accent is mastered) and it is considered a perfect example of a classic three-act play. With the professionals – QTC and WA’s Black Swan State Theatre Co. – taking it on as a co-production you would hope for a lift in quality commiserate with the ticket prices, particularly in the production values, if not the performances and, thankfully, this production delivers on both fronts.

Setting the tone is Bruce McKinven’s design: it’s fresh, concept driven and delicious on the eye, as befitting a modern main stage production, but the reverence for time and place — William’s atmospheric 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation – is all pervasive. McKinven pays homage to the iconic 1958 film version with some carefully handpicked elements – Maggie’s dress design, for example, and Big Daddy’s cashmere robe – but he was not visually enslaved to it, either. Aficionados of the film will spot the markers, but hopefully appreciate the differences: Maggie’s dress, while modelled on the version Elizabeth Taylor wore, is dark green and it’s a stunning change (as per McKinven’s brief for the costume design). McKinven’s use of colour — greys, dark blues and greens – plays to the darker themes in the play, with his use of Spanish Moss is an inspired touch.

For the actors, the spectre of the film is arguably harder to discard. Audiences don’t want imitation, but there’s only so much room for deviation when characters are so deeply ingrained in a collective psyche. The casting of Cheree Cassidy as Maggie the Cat – coming via television’s Underbelly: The Golden Mile and Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo – has been well-publicised and, no doubt, Cassidy felt the weight most keenly. Elizabeth Taylor may have made the most indelible mark on this career highlight of a role, but it’s also been played by such luminaries as Ashley Judd on Broadway and Francis O’Connor in London’s West End.

Cassidy opened the play in battle mode. She tackled the first act – essentially a monologue delivered to her unresponsive husband, Brick – with all the right lines and actions, but you could see the rehearsal process. Conceding opening night nerves, she wasn’t quite there to begin with. Her accent was too restrained, as though she feared drawling out her vowels in case of exaggeration. She needn’t have worried, when she dropped in and relaxed – about twenty minutes in – the hard working actress disappeared and a convincing, sympathetic and enchanting Maggie emerged.

As Brick Pollitt – the dissolute ex-footballer, drunk and younger son of plantation owner, Big Daddy – Tom O’Sullivan (Cassidy’s fellow Underbelly: The Golden Mile alumni) serves the role well. Playing a disengaged character is difficult – while Brick is indifferent to his wife’s emotional and sexual needs and everybody else around him, the actor must still be engaged with the ensemble and the audience. O’Sullivan managed this dichotomy nicely, delivering his best moments in his lengthy scene with John Stanton as Big Daddy.

Stanton’s Big Daddy hit all the right notes, so it seems picky to point out his lack of  ‘stature’, however, it was hard to dislodge the feeling that he  just wasn’t big enough to play a character called Big Daddy.  Perhaps it’s the very large shadow of Burl Ives, but silver-fox Stanton looked altogether too trim and healthy to be a man on the verge of death as the result of his appetites.

It’s a minor gripe in otherwise perfectly cast play. All the support roles were well cast with the actors easily finding the cadence and lyricism of William’s dialogue.  Hugh Parker and Caitlin Beresford-Ord portrayals as Gooper and his wife Mae, respectively – whether intentionally or not – were very close to the film version, but they worked well. Likewise their four no-necked monsters: they didn’t have a lot to do, but it’s important to the play’s continuity that the children are convincing, which they were.

Carol Burns as Big Mama, however, was the standout. All the usual superlatives apply to what was a flawless performance by this veteran of the stage. Maybe unfairly, but not surprisingly, she received the loudest round of applause at curtain call.

For film and theatre buffs, the plot of Cat needs little elaboration. It is a play relished for its characters and themes, not for cathartic resolution or an unmasking of who dunnit. However, for those who are only familiar with the film version, the stage version can be a revelation. The references to homosexuality – namely Brick and Skipper’s ‘friendship’ – are far more overt in the play, whereas the film is so obscure about the issue it’s easy to miss what the problem at the heart of Maggie and Brick’s marital discord actually is, such was censorship in the 50s. Ironically, it’s this very censorship that contextualises how taboo talking about homosexuality was at that time and which aids understanding of Brick’s self-destructive behaviour.

Ultimately, Cat is a play that demands fidelity to its setting and the time in which was written. Like performing Shakespeare, embracing the language of the play is paramount. On all levels this production is faithful enough to please purists – especially lovers of the film version – without kowtowing to a preconceived idea of how it should be.  Director Kate Cherry’s reverence for this play and Williams’ writing is evident, but it’s her intimacy with its characters and her ability to nurture the relationships between them that make this a must-see for lovers of Tennessee Williams’ plays.

If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is already one of your favourites, you will have every reason to enjoy – and relish – this production. For younger generations who may be unfamiliar with Williams’ seminal work, there will be no better introduction. QTC/Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is quality theatre which has landed on its feet running.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs from 15 August – 3 Sept. Tickets are available through QPAC.