Royal Exchage, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Northern Stage, Newcastle
30 October to 29 November 2014
White floor; white wooden doors; white chair and chaise longue and liquor cabinet; big white bed. The circular stage of the Royal Exchange is decked out in so much white that it might feel positively chilly – but as Tennessee Williams’ play gets underway, the Deep South comes to Manchester and we feel the oppressive heat and closeness of Big Daddy and Big Momma’s ranch home, where the Pollitt family have gathered for the birthday of their patriarch. The walls have ears in this family home: the cast are often to be found eavesdropping and gossiping amongst the upper levels of the auditorium. And there’s a lot to eavesdrop on in this wordy play: the cast do an admirable job of Williams’ poetically repetitive script, so that neither their heavy Southern accents, nor the sometimes mannered way the characters speak, ever disrupt the flow of the drama.
Mariah Gale opens the play masterfully as Maggie the Cat, drawing us into her world with torrents of abuse about her in-laws, and stubborn devotion to uninterested husband Brick, in such a way that we sympathise with her rather than seeing her as petty and ignorant. Brick, played by Charles Aitken, slowly unfurls as the play progresses. In the key scene where he finally admits his own self-hatred and repressed homosexuality to Big Daddy, the release of emotion is balanced very well: we see and understand the despair that has driven him to drink, but like everything in the production, it is rooted in its setting. He hides his face – a 1950s man who, although destroyed, does not surrender himself to utter humiliation. Daragh O’Malley gives a captivating performance as Big Daddy, utterly believable as the man who grabs and yells at his wife one minute, and perceptively analyses his son’s psyche the next.
James Dacre’s direction never lets the tension drop as more secrets and lies unravel, and Brick, downing glass after glass, waits for “the click I get in my head” when the drink finally allows him to forget his inner pain. Unfortunately, the moment when he finally hears it was spoiled in the performance that I saw by a loud disturbance in the auditorium just at that moment. I was similarly distracted by the sounds of children chattering, screaming and laughing offstage at various points – this is intended for effect, unlike the noise in the audience, but I found it more off-putting than scene-setting. Taken as a whole, though, this is an enthralling production in which the lead actors shine.