This modernised Cat on a Hot Tin Roof doesn’t go far enough

The production features a majority black cast - Helen Murray
The production features a majority black cast - Helen Murray

How do you revive, diversify and re-interrogate American early to mid 20th-century classics, without minimising or misrepresenting the racialised context of the era?

That issue is acute with the work of Tennessee Williams, especially his masterpiece set on a lavish plantation home in the sultry Deep South. First staged in 1955, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a portrait of an in-fighting white family, the Pollitts, presided over by ailing patriarch Big Daddy. Though his wealth doesn’t come from slavery, the servants are black, and you don’t need to peer far under the carpet to see a heap of exploitation swept under it.

At the Royal Exchange – a building, we should note, whose history is bound up with cotton and the slave trade – director Roy Alexander Weise has opted for a majority black cast, and no servant characters. Leaving segregationist America behind, he locates the action in the here and now – a double-bed is the focal point, and quasi-sacrificial altar, of a sometimes revolving circular stage, the audience, as ever, watching on all sides. “I’m not that interested in presenting reality anymore,” he has explained.

The problem is that by bringing the play into the 21st century, albeit after an abstract fashion, some core elements begin to feel anachronistic. Big Daddy’s younger son Brick’s disgust-riddled abstention from marital congress, bound up with his wife Maggie’s seduction of his bosom buddy Skipper, for whom he also harboured intense feelings, fits with the social expectations of the Fifties. Here, then, when he recoils at an inferred attraction between them – “You think that Skipper and me were a pair of dirty old men.. ducking sissies? Queers?” – his protestations sound at variance with the updated period. Homophobia persists today, but society has largely changed.

Compounding the sense of a half-way house approach, Ntombizodwa Ndlovu’s prowling Maggie ‘the cat’ arrives singing lines from a Rihanna song; later we hear a snatch of 50 Cent’s It’s Your Birthday. Such moments are fun, but feel cosmetic, not cohering into a fresh rethink.

While the framework is a touch wobbly and the pacing protracted, the lead performances are solid. Ndlovu catches the brittleness in Maggie’s self-possession, the buried pain of her dogged persistence. Jacqui Dubois honours the bustling tragicomedy in Big Mama’s anxious vigilance, while Patrick Robinson impresses as an unabashedly unpleasant Big Daddy.

Best of all is a crutch-wielding Bayo Gbadamosi as the faded sports hero Brick; he captivates in his terse, watchful disdain, liquor his lover, his eyes pitiably blurry and his speech absently slurred come the final pouncing triumph of his frustrated spouse.

Until April 29. Tickets: 0161 833 9833;