[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/15383?ns=guardian&pageName=What+to+say+about+...+Cat+on+a+Hot+Tin+Roof%3AArticle%3A1314576&ch=Culture&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CTennessee+Williams%2CWest+End%2CBroadway%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Leo+Benedictus&c7=09-Dec-04&c8=1314576&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Culture&c13=What+to+say+about+%28series%29&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2FTheatre[/img]Debbie Allen's powerful production boasts an all-black cast and radical 1980s setting, but it's the booming basso of James Earl Jones that leaves the critics breathless
The West End has already seen a white Othello, a female Hamlet, Brian Blessed as a human being … and now, in this transfer from Broadway, black actors performing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For, lest we forget, Tennessee Williams's drama of succession and self-delusion is set within a wealthy plantation family in 1950s Mississippi, a milieu that could scarcely get any whiter if it started raining Tipp-Ex. (Though the show's director Debbie Allen has also helpfully updated the play to the 1980s, to make its racial cross-dressing not utterly impossible, just extremely unlikely.)
On Broadway, the show grossed more than $14m in 20 weeks, and hopes are high for the West End run. Though some of the original actors have been switched with British ones, the big draw, James "Darth" Earl "Vader" Jones, is still in place as the patriarch Big Daddy. Unaware that he has terminal cancer, he receives the flattery of his family (who have conspired to keep this information from him) as they compete for a share of his estate.
And what a splendid job everyone agrees he does. "His second-act, father-son confrontation with Adrian Lester's Brick is one of the high watermarks of the London year," says the Guardian's Michael Billington. "Jones gives us all the brutal coarseness and volcanic vulgarity of this Mississippi plantation-owner … But the brilliance of [his] performance lies in his revelation of the vulnerability of this domestic tyrant."
And indeed, it's that unmistakable deep voice that has always kept Mr Earl Jones in lucrative work. As Henry Hitchings notes in the Standard, "Jones … commands attention, making something baroque out of a line as simple as 'Shut up' and sonorously communicating his disgust at the 'powerful and obnoxious odour' of deception that wafts through his demesne."
Rare nits the critics found to pick were Lester's performance in the first half ("oddly subdued" – Paul Taylor in the Independent) and Sanaa Lathan's as his wife Maggie ("fails to transfix us as she should" – Hitchings). And in the case of Benedict Nightingale of the Times, even the play itself "isn't faultless". "It's awfully wordy," he complains. "Even Peter de Jersey, who does much to bring out the elder son's sense of rejection, can't hide the fact that he and his wife are caricatures."
Yet, by the end, nobody can deny the emotional power of the production. "The true, touching moments more than compensate," Nightingale says. "One emerges moved by the author's compassion," adds Billington, clearly overcome. "You become so absorbed by the universal elements in the story", Taylor comments, "that you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors' skins." The show is so good, in other words, that the director's big idea makes virtually no difference to it. She must be very proud.
Do say: No cats were harmed in the making of this show.
Don't say: Use the force, Big Daddy!
The reviews reviewed: Why, sir, what a fine dramatic production you have put on for us, I do declare.
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Guardian: What to say about ... Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
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