It was going to be The Glass Menagerie but nearby Theatr Clwyd got that first. So Chester Gateway director Jeremy Raison went for the next smallest of Tennessee Williams's plays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At nine characters plus children, that's hardly minimalist. Nor does Cat seem small-scale. "It's quite a short play - two hours ten minutes plus intervals," says Raison. "But it feels mammoth with its concentrated, long monologues. The language is very specific, very little is wasted so it's difficult to cut. There are a lot of hyphens in the text - indications of characters' thought changes."
He comments on the play's unusual structure. "Act one is really Maggie's ('the Cat') monologue, Act two a duologue then Big Daddy's monologue. Williams gives a spacious feel by a parade of offstage sounds and people passing by." And the noises off are positioned to counterpoint speech onstage. When Big Daddy's son Brick speaks of his last phone call to Skipper a phone rings; Maggie, Brick's wife, speaks of death and the sound of croquet, representing leisurely life, is heard.
Brick is the hardest of the characters to come to grips with. The film was given a more upbeat ending, but Chester's production will follow the Penguin edition in using the second stage version of act three. It ends in ambiguity - Is Brick gay? Will he give up drinking or ever sleep with Maggie again? The director's problem is that Brick never reveals himself in the way other characters do. "Brick says very little to explain himself. Much of the time he's only asking for his crutch, or a drink or waiting for the click in his head. His secret is one of the motors of the play's action," says Raison.
Yet in a way the action is seen through Brick's eyes, as if he were a descendent of Tom in The Glass Menagerie but one fully integrated into the action.
So, is Brick Tennessee Williams' own wish fulfilment - "he does nothing but is loved by all," - as Raison says? Certainly Williams finds points of sympathy in what is overall an unpleasant bunch. "Maggie grasps for money, but we know she fears falling again into the poverty she has known. Big Mama is brash and loud, but we see moments of hurt in Big Daddy's cruelty to her. He may be a monster, a red-neck bigot who has built his own system of prejudices, but the play discovers a frailty that leads to pathos in the way we regard him," he says. And the other couple in the play have saving features. "Mae is looking out for the five children she is bringing up, while her husband has done all Big Daddy wants of him but sees Brick remaining the golden boy. Even at the end Gooper, Brick's brother, is trying to set up a situation where all the people left can survive."
Chester Gateway to May 17. Tickets: 01244 34O392. Tours May 19-July 26 to Buxton, Lincoln, Lowestoft, Barnstaple, Manchester, Sheffield, York, Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds and Northampton