Go watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Broadway box-office smash Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the first ever all-black production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play has arrived at London’s Novello Theatre. Having studied the play at college and with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic performances as Brick and Maggie still vivid in my mind, I had high expectations from Debbie Allen’s production.

Much has been made of the casting choice and while the race-reverse concept proved to be commercially canny in the US – grossing in excess of $14m (£8.4m) – on the night you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors’ skin. Debbie Allen shifts the story to the 1980s for there to be plausibility in a Deep South black millionaire, emphasising that the universal themes of lies, sexuality and mortality transcend race, ethnicity and time.

The colossal James Earl Jones as Big Daddy headlines the fantastic cast. Jones is completely at ease with the complex character of Big Daddy. A rich Mississippi plantation-owner who falsely believes his cancer is in remission and relishes his apparent new lease of life, Jones’s Big Daddy is at once powerful and vulnerable, brutal and understanding. His booming voice brings resonance and power to his words and coupled with his titanic frame Jones has the majestic presence fitting for the patriach of the family.

The core of Williams’s play is the exhilarating second act in which Big Daddy probes the reason for Brick’s alcoholism and its connection with the death of his friend Skipper. Both Big Daddy and Brick show us how we fanatically and destructively strip away the protective illusions of others to get to the truth while clinging relentlessly to our own lies. Adrian Lester’s compelling performance makes it painfully apparent that Brick’s alcoholism, supposedly an escape from the “mendacity” that surrounds him, in fact springs from actively shying away from reality: the truth he cannot face is that his relationship with Skipper transcended friendship. The savage irony of Lester’s cry that “mendacity is a system we live in” is that is applies most of all to himself. Lester’s only fault is his appalling American accent in the first act which, in the heated exchange with Big Daddy in the second act, he discards all-together.

Allen’s production beautifully brings to life Williams’s brutal comedy as well as his emotional pain. Sanaa Lathan’s fast-talking Maggie, the “cat” of the title, carries the first act. Long-banished from her husband’s bed, the sultry Maggie is both sexually frustrated and desperate to lay a claim to Big Daddy’s inheritance by producing an heir. Her frustration at being ignored by her husband and anger at his lack of ambition is deeply empathetic. She cannot compete with the ever-present memory of the dead Skipper and is unable to accept her situation but an unstoppable talker she drives her husband to chase her around the room throwing his crutch at her brilliantly evoking both sympathy and laughter from the audience.

Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama is also worth mentioning: her turn as the long-suffering wife of Big Daddy’s domestic tyrant is by no means the one-dimensional portrayal is could so easily have been. She is a pathetic victim of her husband’s cruelty and comical in her vulgarity but remains a passionate defender of both Big Daddy and Brick.

The show succeeds in never being boring despite the fact that the set never changes and the running time, at nearly three hours, is exactly the time of its action. The set itself was opulent and overpowering enough to convince us of Big Daddy’s wealth and the large four-postered bed in the centre of the set powerfully symbolises the failure of Brick and Maggie’s marriage.

In the end an all-black cast is irrelevant to the universal themes of the play. However it is extremely important for other reasons: the audience on the night was mostly London’s black community. The cast of this play is encouraging for black punters like Bombay Dreams was for the British-Asians. Moreover, it is also interesting for the traditional middle-class white audiences to experience what other ethnicities encounter most of the time – seeing people of another colour wholly owning a theatrical delight and making it their own.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof brings a new creative dynamic to London’s West End and is set to be a thorough success.


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