In Debbie Allen’s hit Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now coming to the West End, Tennessee Williams’ Southern plantation-dwelling family are all played by black actors, with Tony Award-winning Broadway stars James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad reprising their parental roles as Big Daddy and Big Mama, alongside new cast members Adrian Lester and Sanaa Lathan.

But, according to the company, who gathered for the first day of London rehearsals today (19 October 2009) at the upstairs studio at the Dominion Theatre, the unconventional casting makes very little difference to the play itself. Director Allen told Whatsonstage.com that, aside from moving the time forward a few years and removing a few redneck and other race-specific references, few changes have been made to the script.

“I don’t think it will change how it’s done,” Adrian Lester told Whatsonstage.com. “It’ll change how people look at it, definitely. And I think if you want do a classic you have to re-imagine it and re-engage with it and find a new way in for the audience as well - what a way in!”

White or black, James Earl Jones added, the story is about “a family. That’s the main thing. Seeing the play through new cultural eyes, I don’t find that too important frankly – except that it gives me a chance to play it when ordinarily I wouldn’t.”

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It was in fact Jones’ casting in the role of patriarch Big Daddy that was instrumental to first-time theatre producer Stephen Byrd being able to obtain the rights to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof more than ten years ago. Though the project was delayed, Jones remained on board for the production’s eventual – highly acclaimed – Broadway season in 2008.

Producer, director and fellow cast members believe that the 78-year-old Jones, who hails from Mississippi where the story is set, was born to play the part – and he agrees. “I am a cracker, I am a black cracker, I’m a black redneck,” he said today. “I know more about white rednecks than most Northern white actors would know because I’m from that world. I understand Big Daddy ... he’s a mean man because life was mean to him and he learnt how to handle it in a mean way.”

Jones has been wanting to play Big Daddy since seeing Burl Ives create the role in the original 1955 Broadway production. And he relished the opportunity to have another go at the performance this year in London: “All actors want to do it again. If you loved what you did, you want to do it again. If you have a whole new family to do it with, it’s a special privilege ... With a different cast, you hear and feel things differently and you make choices you probably wouldn’t have considered before.”

For Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, the West End season is not only a reunion following their Broadway success, but a real family affair: the two are sisters (Rashad, the elder by two years) and their brother, jazz composer Andrew ‘Tex’ Allen, has written the music for the play. Allen threatened to call and tell their own mama if Rashad didn’t sign up to first appear in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or accompany the London transfer.

What’s more, Allen and Rashad are old friends with Sanaa Lathan’s parents – Lathan’s dancer-mother Eleanor McCoy worked with Allen on Fame, for which she’s best remembered as teacher Lydia Grant – and have known the young actress since she was a baby. All three women are making their West End debuts with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which runs from 1 December 2009 (previews from 21 November) to 10 April 2010 at the Novello Theatre.

In Williams’ play, ailing Big Daddy's birthday party sets the scene for family recriminations and revelations. His son Brick, a former college sports star, is more upset about the death of his friend Skipper than the disintegration of his marriage to a sexually frustrated wife Maggie.

The 1958 film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starred Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor as Brick and Maggie, with Burl Ives recreating his stage role as Big Daddy. The last West End revival, at the Lyric Theatre in 2001, was led by Brendan Fraser as Brick, Frances O'Connor as Maggie, Ned Beatty as Big Daddy and Gemma Jones as Big Mama. A 1988 National Theatre revival starred Ian Charleson, Lindsay Duncan, Eric Porter and Barbara Leigh-Hunt.

The new London cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also includes leading black British actors Richard Blackwood, Peter De Jersey, Joseph Mydell and Nina Sosanya. The production is designed by Morgan Large and produced by Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones for Front Row Productions.

** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF on 10 December 2009 – inc a FREE poster & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast, all for £34.50!! - click here for more info!! **