Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre, December 2009

This 1955 Tennessee Williams play deals with the emotional lies and silences within a Mississippi land-owning family. The action takes place on a single day — Big Daddy’s birthday — and we first meet Maggie, who has married into this well-to-do family, along with her husband Brick. She is the cat on a hot tin roof, desperate for some loving from her husband, an ex-football player, now a sports commentator hobbling around on a crutch after recently injuring his ankle. Maggie is almost the only person speaking in Act I, as Brick stays silent, occasionally lashing out with his crutch or falling over. The physical crutch is a recent temporary addition to his life, but alcohol is the real crutch that helps him face the day, and in the second act, Big Daddy enters and berates him for it, just as his wife did. But Brick still remains almost silent, until something snaps and he explains why he’s so angry, and angry in particular with his wife, who slept with his best friend Skipper. When Skipper died, Brick took to alcohol, and we finally understand why he drinks and avoids his wife, though we never really know how much sexual repression there was in the relationship with Skipper. The dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick is a high point of this drama, and it was brilliantly performed by James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester.

In the meantime there are other issues, such as Big Daddy’s impending death from cancer, which is being hidden from him, and the manoeuvring by Brick’s brother and the brother’s wife to take over the estate. After Big Mama rejects their legal documents, and Big Daddy finds out the truth, we seem to be left with a train-wreck. But this is where Maggie finally shows a stroke of genius, finding a way to delight Big Daddy, as well as getting off her hot tin roof and into her husband’s affections.

The production by Debbie Allen, with an elegant set by Ray Klausen, fine costumes by Jane Greenwood, and clear lighting by William Grant, works beautifully. But what really makes this a great performance are the actors. James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashand as Big Daddy and Big Mama are superb. They both came with this production from Broadway, and both were born in the South, Mississippi in his case, where the action takes place, and Texas in hers. They were deeply believable, as if they had this drama in their bones. Jones’s deep bass voice was only one aspect of his wonderful performance — his stage presence was riveting, and he only needed to sit and move his head, for us to know exactly what was going on in his mind. Seneca Lathan as Maggie is another American cast member, and she was glorious, though one might prefer more smouldering and less electricity. Adrian Lester as Brick was very powerful in his anger and histrionics with the crutch, and he did extremely well with the Southern accent, particularly since he was performing next to actors from that region. The same could not be said of the man who gave a rather weak portrayal of his brother the lawyer, and sounded like an Englishman trying on a Southern drawl. But that quibble aside, the performance by this all black cast was terrific, and as an American friend of mine said, “This may be the best performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof you’ll ever see”.

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