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Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Dunstable Rep - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof


As there are a lot of confessions and revelations in the Rep’s latest production, speechifying my late mother would have called it, perhaps I should throw in a couple of my own. I have never seen Cat on Hot Tin Roof on the stage. Come to that I have never seen Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie either. I reckon it was all those Tennessee Williams’ films of the 50’s and 60’s that put me off. There were a lot around at the time and I saw or slept through most of them. The Night of the Iguana was this ungrateful teenager’s low point. So when I became a serious theatregoer Mr Williams would always come a long way below Rattigan and Chekhov in the fight for my precious pound. If Liz Taylor and Vivien Leigh can’t tick my boxes what hope is there for the rest of them.

I think you can guess what is coming. The Rep wheeled this one out as the third in their 2011/12 film season and not only was this ambitious choice enjoyable it was, by some way, the best so far. Plaza Suite had a couple of acting gems and A Christmas Carol stunning invention, but neither had the shape or coherence that director Chris Lavin brought to this one. The Mississippi Plantation family are a rum lot and you wouldn’t want to spend Christmas with them. Half an hour on a picnic outing and they would be at each other’s throats. The back story is megabucks Big Daddy dying of cancer but only he and his Big Mama wife don’t know this, but the main thrust is the squabbling family desperate to share or grab the spoils when he goes. And the focus of that thrust is younger son Brick, crippled in an accident, and his sexually frustrated wife Maggie.

The action all takes place in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom and it is designed in such a way that it becomes a thoroughfare for all the various characters. Clapham Junction was never so busy. The colourful backdrop was pleasing but the imaginary door and windows stretched ones theatrical imagination. Only the porch area where Brick, poignantly, talked to the moon truly worked. But that bedroom was crucial. Nobody had sex but they talked about it an awful lot. It’s that speechifying that mother used to go on about. Maggie (Liz Caswell superb as always), desperately desires to rekindle a sexual flame in her Brick. As she says, she could live with his rejection if he was a flabby slob of a husband, but the manifest presence of his flesh both frustrates and attracts. Brick (a magnificent portrayal from Dave Corbett) seeks solace in alcohol. He detests his wife but he detests himself more. The only state he can cope with is the oblivion of whisky.

The relationship of Maggie and Brick are crucial to this play. If she is the Cat then he is the Hot Tin Roof. All the other characters, important as they are, are mere satellites. The chemistry between them has to both gel and sear. Especially as there is an elephant in their bedroom in the shape of the unseen, long dead, Skipper. I hope the audience got this because, by God, he is important. Killed himself because of his attraction to Brick. Or so it seems. I was gripped. The fading sexual powers of this Maggie and the brooding, monosyllabic, presence of Brick were writ large in this production. Miss  Caswell and Mr Corbett truly clicked and I take my theatrical hat off to both of them.

But in all good productions there is always a lot more going on than you think. A major plus for me was the easy and natural style in which Mr Lavin created his surrounding pictures of plantation family life. Characters, children and adults, crossed the set in realistic style and the life beyond the bedroom of Brick and Maggie was an ever present and crucial picture. It is merely a detail but get it right, as Mr Lavin did, and it adds so much to an evening. Charles Plester gave solid support as a Big Daddy consumed by his own perceived importance, Anne Davis, Big Mama in a pretty party dress, beautifully evoked the love that was missing in most of the other characters and Ben Jaggers was a believable older brother. I like him best when he took off his jacket but, being a lawyer with an eye to a fortune, that is hardly surprising. But other than the two bedroom inhabitants the performances that squeezed every inch from their turns were Jenna Ryder-Oliver’s sister in law Mae and Richard Garrett’s Reverend Tooker. Miss Ryder-Oliver shed kids like shelling peas, three very good ones on stage, and as a weapon with which to beat the barren Maggie they were formidable and vicious. The Rev Tooker found this family life all a bit too much and his uncomfortable character exited beautifully.

But in truth there was not a weak performance in a play in which I suspect most of the Rep actors have not been further into the deepest south than Cornwall. Richard Foster’s clouds pleased more than Graham Elliott’s late thunderstorm but that is probably because I am an expert on the latter. I loathe storms and know every nuance of their creation. This one did not convince. But practically everything else in Mr Lavin’s production did. An ambitious production, thoroughly enjoyable, and much better than Iguana and those other films of my teenage years. I clearly used to sleep through speechifying. Last week, the Rep kept me awake.

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