Cat on a Hit Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams
Novello Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

Before it came to Broadway, habitués of the New York Theater District cannot have believed that Debbie Allen's idea of translating Tennessee Williams' tale of the most dysfunctional of redneck families into an African-American setting could work.

Now the whole of the backstage team has flown over to London to recreate the show, along with Hollywood veteran James Earl Jones and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad, reprising their performances as Big Daddy and Big Mama.

They are joined by fellow American Sanaa Lathan, plus some of Britain's finest black actors to present a superb entertainment that fully justifies the experimentation.

The action has been updated to the 1980s and takes place in a luxurious bedroom complete with four-poster bed. This is created in a characteristically American style by scenic designer Morgan Large, who gets good support and a magnificent additional colour palette from his costume colleague, Fay Fullerton.

The bedroom is occupied by Miss Lathan's Maggie the Cat, a woman clearly devoted to her wayward husband Brick as they return to the family home for the 65th birthday of his father, Big Daddy.

In the early stages, Adrian Lester, playing taciturn ex-football star Brick, is almost silent, giving off an air of sourness as he imbibes more and more bourbon in a search for the click of oblivion and gives up any attempt to humour his wife.

As the play develops, and particularly in a pivotal scene with his father, Brick is forced to face up to his own weaknesses and, by the end of the play, like the old man with whom he has so much in common, begins to accept the cards that fate has dealt him.

The relationship between the younger couple is mirrored a generation up by the fearsome, doomed Big Daddy and his devoted Big Mama, played by the Broadway transferees.

James Earl Jones with his deep bass voice initially seems unfailingly tough but as soon as the self-made plantation owner is released from the wife whom he has hated for 40 years, he shows depths of humanity that are exacerbated when he discovers a series of familial secrets.

The third pairing, Peter de Jersey, playing elder son Gooper, and Nina Sosanya as his grasping wife Mae whose sole talent is for childbearing, have the opposite effect to the one that they desire. The more that they show off their sweet little brats the less likely it is that the rich patriarch will favour them, in life or thereafter.

Miss Allen is particularly good at the two-handed scenes, first between Maggie and Brick, then Brick and his father, both of which had a ring of absolute authenticity. She also ensures that the final family scene is simultaneously comic and tragic, leading to a satisfying finale.

In addition to the leading actors, Play School veteran Derek Griffiths gives a lovely comic cameo as a timid preacher who gets a laugh every time that he appears.

There is no question that this translation works perfectly and it begs questions as to what else might work. While this year's Streetcar Named Desire starring Rachel Weisz was a runaway hit at the Donmar, you begin to see how it too could work perfectly with a similarly staging.

In any event, this Cat should be a runaway hit in London so do not miss out.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Reviewer: Philip Fisher