James Earl Jones (Big Daddy) and Adrian Lester (Brick) finally talk. Photo by Nobby Clark
It's that time of year again. When you head home at Christmas, and those weird old family tensions resurface. Adult siblings behave like kids; your mother-in-law asks when she'll get to be a grandmother; your dad tells you the same story he's told you the past six times you've been home, ignoring protestations that you've heard it before.
If you're not getting some "quality" family time this Christmas, don't worry: you can get all this awkward family tension and more at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre.
Here's the favourite son, Brick (Hustle's Adrian Lester), drowning himself in drink. His wife, Maggie (the quite wonderful Sanaa Lathan), knows their marriage is failing, but is valiantly trying to talk it back to life. There's the noisy, interfering mother, (Phylicia Rashad) and the pivotal, overbearing, terminally ill father, Big Daddy (James Earl Jones), celebrating not Christmas, but his last birthday. Add to the mix another son and his wife determined to get their hands on the inheritance, and the stage is set for a big ol' Deep South Tennessee Williams cat fight.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof moves in real time, stuck in one quite claustrophobic room, despite the luxuries of the cotton plantation. The first act simmers for a long time before the real boiling points hit; when they do, they're worth the wait. If, at the start, Adrian Lester seems subdued compared to the cheeky chappy you've seen on TV, be patient. His father-son chat with James Earl Jones in the second act sparkles and sears with pain, both physical (Big Daddy's got cancer) and mental (Brick's loss of his friend/lover Skipper has sent him into turmoil).
This fresh-from-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen, is performed by an all black cast, and pulls the action from the 1950s to the 1980s; for the latter, we're not sure why. There is, of course, a universality about the play. Seeing the Pollitts as an African-American family makes no real difference to the genius of the story: all we saw were more ethnic minorities in a West End theatre audience, which is great. But we couldn't see much 80s styling in Morgan Large's otherwise fantastic set design or in the costumes. All it did was confuse the homosexuality in the story; if this is the 80s, why are the family scared of their son's "too rare to be normal" friendship, like it's the 50s?
Despite this, some other minor niggles (both JEJ and Rashad need to work on their enunciation; it's a shame Mr Lester isn't "bigger" - more threatening - for a wounded football hero), this production certainly falls into the recommendation (but perhaps not quite must-see) category. We loved the way every dark comic possibility was pulled out to make Williams' script shine all the more; Nina Sosanya and Peter De Jersey deserve a mention for keeping the grabbing Gooper and Mae funny, but well-clear of panto; likewise Derek Griffiths' (yay, Play School!) comically inept preacher.
See it if you can, not least because the play itself is a (underperformed) masterpiece.