The Broadway success Cat on Hot Tin Roof, the first ever all-black production of a Tennessee Williams’ classic play has arrived at London’s Novello Theatre. Much has been made of the casting choice but at the end of the day, the fact that there is an all-black cast is not very noticeable (although it forces the story to be shifted thirty years forward to the 1980’s for there to be plausibility in a Deep South black millionaire) – what is noticeable however, it that it is a fantastic cast for a great play. In fact, one actor in particular, James Earl Jones as Big Daddy makes it impossible for any complaint to be made about the cast. If it is stage presence you are after, he has it in buckets - some people are born to be on stage and the gravity of his performance is the very core of the success of the show. Indeed, everything else in the production seems to orbit around his mass, including the audience who broke out in a tumultuous welcome applause at his first appearance on stage in the second act. He is more than worth the wait. Jones is completely at ease with the complex character of Big Daddy (which Tenessee considered his greatest creation), at once powerful and vulnerable, cruel and understanding and throughout acerbically funny. It is no wonder Jones is most famous for his voice (this is none other than the man who voiced the most iconic of film villains of all time: Darth Vader), the resonance and power of it echoes beyond the words he is saying and gives a fittingly regal presence to the patriarch.
Jones headlines a stellar cast: Adrian Lester as Brick effectively portrays a man who has in Tennessee's own words the “charm of the defeat.” An ex-college footballer, turned sports commentator, succumbing to alcoholism as a way out of dealing with the sexually ambiguous emotions brought up by the recent death of his friend Skipper, he gives an understated yet believable performance. Sanaa Lathan as his wife Maggie, carries the first act (she has, for all intents and purposes, all the dialogue) and her frustration at being ignored by her husband and anger at his lack of ambition is incredibly empathetic. It is hard not to feel sad for a woman who is so stuck, she cannot compete with the ever-present memory of Skipper and is unable to accept her situation. Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama is also worth mentioning, her turn as the long-suffering wife of Big Daddy’s tyrant is by no means the one-dimensional portrayal it could so easily be. Nina Sosanya as Mae, Brick’s overly fertile sister-in-law also brings depth to her rather crude role. In fact, only Peter de Jersey as unfairly dismissed brother Gooper fails to please, surrounded by such talent he struggles to keep his head above water.
The story takes place on Big Daddy’s birthday, after being diagnosed with cancer Big Daddy is deluded into believing he has a spastic colon and rejoices of his new lease on life. Meanwhile the rest of the family face the truth of his imminent death and fight over their inheritance as they deal with broader issues of alcoholism, sex and sexuality and the shadow of mortality. The performance revolves around the emotional confrontation between Big Daddy and Brick in the second act. It is the climax of the production and shows the true extent of Tennessee’s grasp of the flawed nature of individuals. Big Daddy shows remarkable compassion towards his son’s confessions, while Brick keeps denying his true feelings while asserting his disgust with the “mendacity” of society – the all-pervading lies. In fact, while each of the characters tries to viciously tear away the illusions of the others, they cling stubbornly to their own and Brick is the most at fault here.
Considering the fact that the set never changes and the running time is exactly the time of its action, at nearly three hours there is much to be said for a show that succeeds in never being boring. Although as to why there was a four-minute ‘stretch break’ between acts two and three I remain unsure, that was a new one for me and apart from providing a break for the actors I am left unconvinced of its necessity. The set itself was opulent and overpowering enough to convince us of Big Daddy’s riches and the large four-postered beds in the middle of the set was a powerful symbol of the failure of Brick and Maggie’s marriage. In fact, in both that bed and the performances there was something reminiscent of Hamlet; the tale of dysfunctional family politics and Brick’s relentless self-destruction is not unworthy of the Bard himself.
The archetypal family party fiasco if there is one – this play raises universal themes. The strength of this particular production is the acting which communicates genuine pain and bitterness yet still reveals moments that are truly touching. There is no doubt in my mind that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will be as much of a success here as it was on Broadway.
"Compelling, sensitive and acerbically comic production...absorbed by the universal elements in the story..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Exhilarating evening...fine production...As in any good Williams production, one emerges moved by the author's compassion."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It isn’t faultless. It’s awfully wordy...Yet the true, touching moments more than compensate. "
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Even if the production could do with more fierceness, it packs a big emotional punch, and the face-off between Brick and Big Daddy in the second act is a triumph. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Compelling...This is a gripping, shattering staging of a great play"
Mark Shenton for The Stage
" Fine revival...a production in which dark laughter mingles with deep pain. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph