The casting of all black actors in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a brilliant once in a lifetime experience
MARGARET. Don’t you think I know that –? Don’t you —? Think I know that —?
BRICK. [coolly] Know what, Maggie?
MARGARET. [struggling for expression] That I’ve gone through this — hideous! — transformation, become — hard! Frantic!
The all Afro-American production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes to London with most of the roles re-cast with Black British actors, except for James Earl Jones as Big Daddy and Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama who continue their roles from New York. Sanaa Lathan is the exception, an American, but who didn’t take on the role of Maggie in New York. American director Debbie Allen is retained. All of the British actors are experienced stage performers and I have the feeling that this can only strengthen the London version of the play.
James Earl Jones is very comfortable in his role as Big Daddy, a strong, successful man – all the stronger for having made it as a black businessman in the White dominated South. The actor is not afraid to present Big Daddy’s unpleasant side, the cruelty to his wife and the rejection of his, admittedly dislikable and calculating, son Gooper (Peter de Jersey). But we have to wait quite far into the play to meet Big Daddy.
First we have the bedroom scene between Maggie the Cat and her husband Brick (Adrian Lester) occasionally interrupted by the brats, the children Maggie describes as “no neck monsters”. We watch as Brick drinks himself into oblivion waiting for, as he says, “the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.” Sanna Lathan talks nineteen to the dozen. It’s a very impressive performance of a woman so tight with sexual frustration and, as with the first experience of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, my feelings about Maggie changed by the end of the play.
Adrian Lester’s beginning is a very quiet one, all repression and no expression as he jumps from the bed to the cocktail cabinet with his crutch holding him up, his foot in plaster. This performance is so good, he even hops in to take his curtain call and grins at us. In the first scene Maggie chatters incessantly while Brick drinks. Maggie divulges all, the terrible pain of living with someone who doesn’t love you, “I’m sorry I never could keep my fingers off a sore” she says while Brick blows quite expert, practised cigarette rings. It’s agonising to watch.
The other members of the family intervene: Big Mama, who is loud and tactless, Gooper, Mae and their children. The whole family seem to bellow at each other from other rooms in the house. There is no privacy here. Nina Sosanya is Mae, Gooper’s very pregnant (she has five children already) cringe-making wife who acts as the counter weight to any dislike we may have of Maggie. The question is set up as to why Brick is indifferent to Maggie? As Brick describes the friendship which became so marred which is the basis of the play, we pick up questions of his repressed sexuality. Is this behind Brick’s silence or is it the betrayal, “that thing with Skipper”? The first scene culminates in Brick getting angry when he lunges at Maggie with his crutch but falls over.
After the interval we are treated to the birthday celebrations. The expression on James Earl Jones’ face as he has to endure the performance from the grandchildren is one of absolute horror. Not a happy patriarch here!
The pivotal “mendacity” scene of this play is the one between father and son as Big Daddy talks to his favourite son, Brick, once a football star and now a sports commentator. The recent news about his probably beating cancer, has made Big Daddy reflect on his life and plan for the future. This is the pivotal scene of the play. All the failure of families and relationships is there and the lies they tell about it. As Big Daddy complains about the woman he says he can’t stand, Brick looks into his bleak future. There is no question that Big Daddy is a tyrant but that Brick obviously respects his father. Brick has tears in his eyes as he is cornered by his father about why Brick is drinking so much.
Act Three brings us a cameo from Derek Griffiths as the mealy mouthed preacher, the Reverend Postitve and a brief appearance from Joseph Mydell as Dr Baugh. Gooper and Mae are predatory but Gooper has a certain self knowledge. “I’m not a corporation lawyer for nothing,” says Gooper. Maggie gets involved in a mendacity of her own swinging her pretty derriere in an apricot dress with flared panels of silk chiffon, happy to be the pretty wife of the favoured son.
The set is so interesting, wooden slats with gaps in between to show the changing light outside and shutters over the magnificent tall picture windows with the impression of Spanish moss hanging above. The lighting adds to the moods, Maggie’s first scene lit with peachy pinks but later cooler colours taking over as night falls.
The transposition from a white to a black family is not even a question here, neither is the thirty years forward in time to the 1980s. The performances are so painfully brilliant we are totally caught up in the emotional kick of the production. This is a family hurting and the pain looks as if it will continue into the next generation. Do not miss this outstanding play with the best acting on the London’s stage. I fully expect to see Adrian Lester, James Earl Jones and Sanaa Lathan featuring in nominations for Best Actor awards for 2009.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Debbie Allen
James Earl Jones
Peter de Jersey
Director: Debbie Allen
Set Designer: Morgan Large
Costume Design: Fay Fullerton
Lighting Designer: David Holmes
Sound Designer: Richard Brooker
Original Music: Andrew “Tex” Allen
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Novello Theatre on 10th April 2010
London WC2B 4LD
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Novello Theatre on 2nd December 2009