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Review Round-up: Broadway Cat Gets the Cream

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The hit Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof transferred to the Novello Theatre last night, featuring a stellar all-black anglo-american cast led by US stars James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad, reprising their performances as Big Daddy and Big Mama (See Also Today's 1st Night Photos).

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in a Mississippi plantation house at the time of ailing Big Daddy's birthday party, an event which 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.

Directed by Debbie Allen, Earl Jones and Rashad are joined by Briton Adrian Lester as Brick and American Sanaa Lathan as Maggie, the parts played in the 1958 screen version by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor and in last year’s Broadway season by Terence Howard and Anika Noni Rose.

Overnight reviews were almost universally warm. Despite high expectations in the wake of its rave reception on Broadway last year, London critics were quick to welcome this “fine production” to the West End. Among the performances, James Earl Jones' “massive bull of a Big Daddy” and Lester's “graceful, leonine Brick” were the stand-outs, though special mention should also go to Sanaa Lathan's “sensual, deeply felt performance” as Maggie. On the issue of race, many critics made mention of the colour-blind nature of Williams' narrative. In the words of the Independent's Paul Taylor: “What is remarkable ... is how swiftly you become so absorbed by the universal elements in the story that you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors' skins.”

  • Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Although Tennessee Williams’ great play of sexual and domestic mendacity is clearly set among rednecks in the Deep South in the 1950s, Debbie Allen’s revival from Broadway is an almost wholly successful transplant to the 1980s as an all-black Dynasty of the Delta plantation. Led by the legendary James Earl Jones – surely London’s last chance to see this great figure of the American theatre – as a rumbling, terrifying Big Daddy, Allen’s cast is a compelling synthesis of visiting and local talent … Maggie’s marriage to Brick, the former sports star and dedicated alcoholic, is a tragic parody of an ideal pairing: Adrian Lester’s graceful, leonine Brick is ferociously insistent on the purity of his friendship with his dead friend Skipper; he almost dances round the set on his crutch, finally aiming it at Maggie like a heat-seeking missile. There is something garish and brutal about Morgan Large’s design which places the marital bed upstage centre and denies us consolatory glimpses of scenic vistas or whirring fans … The play’s a shocking rollercoaster, still, and this revival, not without its bumpy moments, renews its full shock value.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “What difference does it make that Tennessee Williams' play is performed by a black cast in Debbie Allen's Broadway production? It undoubtedly gives the work a new dynamic. But ethnicity matters less than emotional firepower and an awareness of the essential Williams conflict between lies and truth; and both are abundantly present in this exhilarating evening … Allen's fine production brings out Williams' savage comedy as well as his emotional pain. Sanaa Lathan's incredibly sultry Maggie, long banished from Brick's bed, is both a mountain of sexual frustration and an unstoppable talker who drives her husband to hide his head in the pillows. Phylicia Rashad's excellent Big Mama is also both a pathetic victim of her husband's cruelty and a woman who, as someone said of Ethel Merman, is like a brass band going by. And there is good support from Peter de Jersey as Brick's elder brother whose grasping nature is explained by his lack of parental love. As in any good Williams production, one emerges moved by the author's compassion.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (four stars) - “Let’s concede at once that it’s not very likely that a black man could have become a rich, powerful plantation owner in the Mississippi of 1955, when Tennessee Williams wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or even in the 1980s, the decade in which Debbie Allen has relocated the slightly recast production she has brought from Broadway to London. But that soon seems, very literally, a skin-deep objection … James Earl Jones’ massive bull of a Big Daddy is brutish to Big Mama, glowers at the elder son he dislikes as if he were in a boxing ring with him, takes coarse glee in his imagined escape from the Grim Reaper and is contemptuous to everyone except Brick - the son he loves, played by our own Adrian Lester. Very well played, too. The one-time football star has retreated into self-disgust and hit the bottle, after the death of the friend who had confessed homosexual feelings for him. What Lester catches especially well is Brick’s difficult, doomed search for the kind of not-being that often seemed to be the gay, self-hating Williams’ quest, too.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) - “American actor James Earl Jones is best known as the voice of Darth Vader from the Star Wars films. He was not always easy to understand then and the same is true of his arrival on the West End, playing Mississippi plantation owner Big Daddy Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Mr Jones has no shortage of stage presence. The moment he enters (last night to welcoming applause - an irritating Broadway habit), this tale of family discord moves up at least two gears. Mind you, he does enter after a prolonged, static opening act, so that's not saying too much. Once he has arrived it become a question of 'what did he say?' and 'did you catch that?' Both he and one of his American co-stars, Sanaa Lathan, fail repeatedly to project their lines … This is a fairly bubbly 'Cat'. The high-ceilinged, brightly-lit set is positively airy. There is little sense of that humid Mid-West heat which so saps morale. The other, much-trumpeted novelty about this show is that the cast is all-black. This is less noticeable. All the players are thoroughly believable. I really don't think I'd have noticed if the producers hadn't pointed it out.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “I suspect there would be howls of indignation if a white theatre company decided to perform a classic black play … And some will doubtless put it down to craven political correctness that there have been no corresponding complaints about a black company performing Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof …  But as Debbie Allen, the director of this fine revival which enjoyed big success on Broadway last year, points out, the themes of Williams’s play are universal … it is surprisingly easy to accept that this play could just as easily be about wealthy black, rather than white, Americans … Occasionally, Allen seems to be treating the piece as if it were a very classy black sitcom. She plays up the comedy for all it is worth at the expense of simmering tension and pain as a family tears itself apart in the shadow of death … Adrian Lester is totally persuasive … Earl Jones superbly captures the rage of a man confronting his own mortality and Sanaa Lathan gives a wonderfully sensual, deeply felt performance as Brick’s frustrated, loving wife, Maggie.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - “To see a black cat cross your path is a proverbial sign of good luck. The all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Tennessee Williams' classic, certainly had good luck in spades on Broadway … With James Earl Jones (aka the voice of Darth Vader) still in stunning form as Big Daddy, but recast in many key roles, Debbie Allen's production opened last night in the West End. Did it prove that there is a creative coherence as well as a commercial canniness to the reverse-race concept? The answer is warmly affirmative … What is remarkable, though, about Allen's compelling, sensitive and acerbically comic production is how swiftly you become so absorbed by the universal elements in the story that you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors' skins.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Adrian Lester endows Brick with a defeated, almost robotic quality - his alcoholism mechanical, his attempts at violence farcical. While he occasionally lashes out angrily with a crutch, the main note of the performance is sour evasiveness … Lathan suggests Maggie’s frayed yet purposeful manner, but doesn’t quite catch the character’s masochistic longing and musical charm. She’s engaging, yet fails to transfix us as Maggie really should. Jones on the other hand brings massive gravity to his role as the bruising patriarch. Initially sounding like an old-fashioned Southern preacher afflicted with a bad cold, he nonetheless commands attention … Cat on a Hit Tin Roof is a strangely jagged drama, powerful in its depiction of moral crisis yet uneven and ambiguous. Debbie Allen’s direction, best in the two-handed scenes, can’t conceal this, and the updating of the setting to the 1980s makes it less plausible that Brick’s sexual confusion would cause him deep anxiety."
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof rnus until 10 April 2010. This Friday 4 December, the Broadway stars of the production – James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan – will be guest presenters at the launch party of our tenth annual Whatsonstage.com Awards at Café de Paris. See awards.whatsonstage.com for more information.


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