Cat on a Hot Tin Roof @ Novello Theatre, London

cast list
James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Adrian Lester, Sanaa Lathan, Richard Blackwood, Derek Griffiths, Nina Sosanya, Guy Burgess, Claudia Cadette, Peter De Jersey, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Joseph Mydell

directed by
Debbie Allen
Hot on the heels of the highly successful chamber production of the classic A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse comes a more expansive revival of Tennessee Williams own favourite play.

This updated, all-black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which originated on Broadway last year but apart from the two senior roles has been re-cast almost exclusively with British actors, provides a new take on this intense family drama.

In the Mississippi Delta mansion of rich cotton plantation owner Big Daddy Pollitt, his family gather to celebrate his birthday but the party mood quickly turns sour.

Apart from Big Daddy himself and his doting wife Big Mama, the rest know that he is dying of cancer, as his two sons and their spouses become involved in a vicious contest to inherit the estate and domestic tensions brew into a storm.
Although it takes a while to get going, and despite finding a surprising amount of humour in Williams highly wrought poetic text, Debbie Allens production still packs an emotional punch. It demonstrates how mendacity, whereby people deceive not only others but themselves, can make healthy relationships impossible, while the eventual outing of truths leads to an uneasy catharsis.

The hypocritical flattery of Big Daddy in the attempt to gain financial benefit is exposed as shallow deceit. In addition, the true cause of his younger son Bricks alcoholic depression and dysfunctional childless marriage to Maggie is revealed not the injury which ended his sporting career but grief from the drinking to death of his close friend Skipper after the repression of their mutually homoerotic feelings.

Morgan Larges sumptuous set, which features a huge four-poster bed and a bar in Brick and Maggies room, highlights the issues at the heart of their troubled relationship, while suggesting that material wealth does not compensate for lack of real love and compassion.

James Earl Jones (whose resonant bass voice is known to millions as Darth Vader in Star Wars but who is one of the great American stage actors since the war) gives Big Daddy a commanding presence around which everyone revolves. Shifting from brief rejuvenation of energy when he thinks his hospital tests are negative, to bitter shock when he hears the truth and then to acceptance of his fate, he gives a rounded performance of a self-made man who revels in his power but who is capable of great tenderness to his favourite son Brick.

As an appealing if sometimes irritating Big Mama, Phylicia Rashad shows the deep hurt caused when her genuine love for her husband is not reciprocated. Adrian Lester persuasively portrays how the self-destructive Brick, hobbling on crutches, is both physically and emotionally crippled, as he is tortured by guilt and disgusted by pretence, and Sanaa Lathan makes the sexually frustrated and manipulative Maggie unusually sympathetic.

Peter de Jersey suggests how the grasping corporate lawyer elder son Gooper is jealous of his younger brother, while as his wife Nina Sosanyas bitchy Mae exploits her cute children for base ends. Joseph Mydell as Doctor Baugh and Derek Griffiths as Reverend Tooker display the subservience of family retainers.

Allen (star of the film and TV series Fame, but since then a successful choreographer and director) seems to have no political reason for staging this play with an all-black cast but simply wants to give them an opportunity to play some great roles which they may not have had before.

Of course, this would not work in the period in which Williams wrote and set the play the 1950s, when segregation was still in place in the South so she has updated it to the 1980s. And once the fundamental human truths of the drama make an impact one forgets the surface context.

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