[The screen is in darkness. A cough is heard. A face appears in a square of light, then five more squares and five more faces. All of the characters are smiling hugely, we can feel their anticipation, and there is a chorus of “Hellos”…]

Yes, RAD Book Club has gone virtual! Six of us met for a video chat to discuss the first stage play that we have read as a group. Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a Pulitzer-Prize winning play, first performed in 1955 on Broadway. We chose to read this text because many of us had not read a play before and this one has a lot of stage directions and drama to give the full effect.

We had all been working from home for three weeks due to the UK lockdown and were very excited to see each other again. We spent more time checking how we were all coping, discussing how we were getting our shopping and admiring each other’s home décor, than we did talking about the book!

We first discussed which format everyone had ‘read’ the play in: four of us had read the text, either as an ebook or a hard copy; one of us had listened to a recording of the spoken play and read the stage directions from a book at the same time, and one of us had watched a recording of the play. The way in which we had experienced the play seemed to have influenced how positive we were about it. Those of us who heard the play read by actors gave it a much higher score than those who read the script on the page. When reading the play, we all found the stage directions distracting but, talking about it, we realised that we had been trying to read a play in the same way as we would do a novel; what we saw as ‘breaking up the dialogue’, and therefore perhaps paid less attention to, is essential to revealing the motivation, emotion and symbolism of the characters and plot.

We initially felt that the treatment of the themes of repressed sexual identity, death, family secrets and rivalries was now very dated but then someone pointed out that it was exactly like an episode of Eastenders and we realised that it is only the language that is now not politically correct. The shouting, secrets and climactic reveals are all now key in mainstream popular entertainment. Whilst those that had heard or seen the play enjoyed the drama and emotion, the rest found the characters to be ugly, with no redeeming features and the lack of any love within the family to be unpleasant. As one Book Club member put it, “I’m already cooped up with my own family, I don’t need the extra stress from someone else’s!” Another difference we noticed when reading the play was that it felt quite laboured, with characters repeating the same phrases and the reader struggling to decipher the way that some accents are written phonetically on the page. When performed, however, these things were not noticeable at all and the speech felt very natural.

One thing that we all agreed on was that in the early days of working from home we were too distracted to concentrate, so we were glad that the play was only about a hundred pages long. We also appreciated how well-crafted the play was to have packed so much into that short space and realised that the high-intensity would not be sustainable for any longer.

Book Club gives Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 6 out of 10. Even if we didn’t enjoy reading it as a play so much, we all agreed it has made us want to go and see it live on the stage if we have the opportunity, although the idea of going to the theatre to see anything seems like a distant dream right now.

RAD Book Club’s next virtual meeting is on 11 May 2020 at 1 pm when we will be talking about The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Described by the publisher as “Gosford Park meets Inception, by way of Agatha Christie”, it will hopefully provide us with a little light relief!