Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

There's no denying that if you choose Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as the first production of your inaugural season as artistic director, you're happy to invite comparisons with the 1958 film version, if only because that is how the majority of your audience will be familiar with it.

Which means you're immediately challenging your director and his cast by giving them a pretty high bar to reach. Your leading man has to be as simmeringly appealing as Paul Newman, and your leading lady has to have the gutsy charm and beauty of Elizabeth Taylor. It's asking for trouble.

Luckily, Robert Hastie's staging of this sultry American classic is up to the job, and robustly so. Theatr Clwyd's new artistic director Tamara Harvey has chosen a season opener with the right kind of story and characters to get the juices flowing, to set out her stall. The venue has in the past staged its classic productions in the smaller Emlyn Williams Theatre, but this production is thrust proudly front and centre in the Anthony Hopkins auditorium.

Desmond Barrit as Big Daddy and
Gareth David-Lloyd as Brick
The role of Brick isn't the most demanding in theatrical history, but it does require a certain stature and depth of self-control. Stepping into Paul Newman's plaster cast is Gareth David-Lloyd, who will be familiar to most as the ill-fated Ianto Jones in TV sci-fi series Torchwood. David-Lloyd gives a compelling performance here, perfectly capturing Brick's brooding, taciturn presence. Of all the cast, he captures the Deep South drawl best of all, and manages to convey the internalised torture in the character with not so much his body language, but his strikingly handsome yet defiantly expressionate face. A man of few words for most of the play, it's when Brick is forced to confront his prejudices and inner torment in conversation with his father that he explodes into a torrent of anger and disgust, just for a few moments. David-Lloyd should be proud of a performance which stands side by side with Newman's celluloid legend. And yes, he definitely ticks the 'simmeringly appealing' box...

He and Desmond Barrit, playing Brick's dying father Big Daddy, have developed a lovely rapport, Barrit managing to portray Big Daddy's explosive anger and unhappiness as well as the character's heartfelt concern for his son. Barrit and David-Lloyd achieve greatness in their intimate scenes together, the father unwilling to turn his back on his rebellious, troubled son, and the son quietly unable to face up to his father's approaching demise.

Catrin Stewart as Maggie
The most demanding part in the play, and perhaps the one that's hardest to separate from the film version, is Maggie. Catrin Stewart (a regular face on Doctor Who) makes a great fist of the part, attacking the torrent of lines at the top of the play with bravery and commitment. The fact Maggie talks almost constantly - speaking before she thinks, never self-editing - is a trait that's obviously worn Brick down over the years, and so it does the audience, who after a good ten minutes of listening to Maggie's incessant opining and exclaiming, starts to tire of her too. It's a thankless task for any actress (and to have to deliver as much as she does is admirable), but Stewart just about manages to mine the humour, particularly concerning those "no-neck monsters". She's better in Act 2 as secrets start to be revealed and Maggie turns her desperation to start a family with Brick into a hard and fast scheme. She takes control of a spiralling situation by making a bold announcement, a false prophecy she knows must be fulfilled. She's a wily cat, that Maggie, and Stewart excels in this quieter, stiller state.

Elsewhere we have an endearing turn from Abigail McKern as Big Mama, performed with such gusto and charm that you can't help feeling for her at every turn. She may look like a slightly anachronistic Mrs Merton, but she provides the heart of the piece, as well as much of the sparse comedy.

The ever reliable Catrin Aaron plays the scheming sister-in-law Mae, pregnant with her sixth child and waddling determinedly around acting as her husband Gooper's ersatz mouthpiece. Gooper may be an accomplished businessman with grand ideas for Big Daddy's estate after he's gone, but make no mistake, it's Mae who drives him. It's easy to think it's all through selfishness, but it's a more protective self-interest for her family unit rather than just herself. Nevertheless, she's the bitch everybody wants to shut up.

Gareth David-Lloyd as Brick, Ian
Hallard as Rev Tooker and Andrew
Langtree as Gooper
There are much lesser roles for Andrew Langtree as hen-pecked Gooper, Ryan Ellsworth as the family doctor, and Ian Hallard as the effete Reverend Tooker. I've never seen the real need for the role of the reverend, and maybe I'm missing something, but what's important is that all three actors give strong turns in minor roles, and that they do. You can tell this ensemble worked well in rehearsals.

Almost stealing the show from under the cast's noses is Janet Bird's magnificent set, a multi-level affair which adds scale and distance and puts a four-poster bed centre-stage, a constant reminder of the crack in Brick and Maggie's marriage. Colin Grenfell's lighting goes a long way in helping tell the story, with the passing of the day reflected in the darkening backdrop, and in tandem with Matthew Williams's sound design, is at its finest during the fireworks scene, each coloured explosion adding to the events on stage. As truths tumble out, the revelations are highlighted by explosions in the sky, and as the whole cast comes together for the final scene of mass accusation, a thunderstorm rolls in. Bird and Williams do so much to make this production as effective as it is.

Director Robert Hastie is an associate director of London's Donmar Warehouse, another fresh approach introduced by Tamara Harvey. He has put together a strong cast and brings together some impressive technical talent to create a version of Tennessee Williams's 1955 classic which is not afraid of comparison, and certainly stands up to it. The casting of TV names (something Theatr Clwyd has rarely embraced in the past) should attract some new faces to the theatre, and for that, both Hastie and Harvey should be proud.

The stats
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Robert Hastie (assisted by Chelsey Gillard)
Cast: Catrin Aaron (Mae); Desmond Barrit (Big Daddy); Gareth David-Lloyd (Brick); Ryan Ellsworth (Dr Baugh); Ian Hallard (Rev Tooker); Andrew Langtree (Gooper); Abigail McKern (Big Mama); Catrin Stewart (Maggie). Children played by Jake Maxwell, Ruby-Rye Hayes, Sam Williams, Brooke Compton (purple team)
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, February 4th to March 5th, 2016. Performance reviewed: February 10th, 2016.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Theatr Clwyd website (retrieved Feb 11 2016)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof SparkNotes (retrieved Feb 11 2016)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof promo video (retrieved Mar 16 2016)

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