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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
Novello Theatre      2009-2010

This Tennessee Williams revival comes from Broadway with an all-black cast led by that national treasure and force of nature James Earl Jones.

And while it is far from perfect, the play's own power, along with some of the performances, ultimately triumphs over any failings in the production.

The first thing to say and get out of the way is that the racial element does not affect the play at all, neither clashing with it (after a very few minor text changes and an implicit updating to a period perhaps the 1980s - when a black millionaire and college football star are unremarkable) nor adding any new overtones. Indeed, the skin colour of the actors quickly becomes irrelevant.

A reminder - a dying rich man must decide which of his sons, the successful one he hates or the self-destructive alcoholic he loves, should inherit, while the drunk's wife fights to save her marriage.

All this is presented in Williams' signature combination of raw emotion and lush poetry that sometimes begs to be turned into opera.

The strengths and weaknesses of Debbie Allen's direction (yes, she of Fame) are apparent in the opening act, which is virtually a monologue for Maggie the Cat.

Sanaa Lathan captures all of Maggie's sensuality and sexuality, and her palpable love and yearning for Brick. But she misses the living-on-raw-nerve-endings desperation repeatedly invoked in references to the title.

So from the start the play's emotional temperature isn't high enough for it to be able to go completely off the scale as it must later on.

Part of Lathan's difficulty is that Adrian Lester as the almost-silent Brick gives her so very little to bounce off in this act.

Brick is freezing Maggie out while in the process of drinking himself into a stupor, but the actor should be able to give us some hint of what both of those are costing him.

I am sure Lester could, and thus must assume he has been directed not to, again not laying the emotional groundwork for what is to come.

If Act One is mainly Maggie's, Act Two is built around a climactic confrontation between Brick and Big Daddy, the father pushing his son to face the guilts and fears that have driven him to drink.

This scene has some of the rawest emotion and richest language Williams (or anyone) ever put onstage, and at its best it can leave you with a contact high, woozy from exposure to both passions and poetry.

James Earl Jones cannot be bad. He has the vulgar, frightened, courageous, life-embracing old man completely in his grasp and completely there for us to see from the minute he walks onstage.

But Jones has been allowed to tinker with the text, paraphrasing or improvising around Williams's words, and that repeatedly shatters the rhythm, the timing and the poetry of both his lines and those of the actors he plays against.

The big scene with Brick does eventually reach the heights and intensity it wants (and Jones adds some fresh and moving touches, like comforting his son at moments other Big Daddys have attacked theirs), but only as it approaches its climax, too much of it along the way just not registering because the playwright's language hasn't been allowed to do its work.

Perhaps one just doesn't direct James Earl Jones any more, but it would have been nice if Debbie Allen had had the faith in her playwright, and the power over her actor, to enforce a stricter adherence to the text.

(And a side point. Allen confirms in a programme note that she cut a dirty joke Big Daddy tells in Act Three because 'I don't like it and it's not funny, and I don't think it adds anything,' evidently missing its characterising and thematic significance - another hint that the director is not really attuned to this play.)

On the other hand Phylicia Rashad may be the best Big Mama ever, the actress bravely embracing the character's age, fat and foolishness while still establishing a core of strength and dignity that will come out later in the play.

(In one of my favourite stage directions of all time, Williams says that at her moment of greatest self-assertion Big Mama 'even stops being fat,' and Rashad makes it happen.)

Nina Sosanya makes little impression as Mae, but Peter de Jersey finds complexity and even some sympathy in Gooper.

Any Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is better than none, and better than most plays written by most other playwrights. If this one sometimes hints at the play's power rather than fully capturing it, it is still a must-see.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - Novello Theatre 2009

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