Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a painful play to watch. Often it will have you squirming in your seat at the harsh words uttered by one of the four impressive protagonists. Other times you will laugh out loud but Tenessee Williams doesn’t let you laugh for long. His impeccable writing gives laughter a hard edge as his words are soaked with bitterness on the lips of these desperate characters.
This is a long play but the first and third acts are so perfect that you barely notice the time go by. The second act feels the longest as the tensions plateau in this excellent representation of staid relationships. Williams does tension brilliantly and the actors in this production deliver their lines to make him proud. The relationships concerned are between Maggie ‘the cat’-a highly likeable character played excellently by Sanaa Lathan- and ‘Brick’, a wonderfully moody Adrian Lester. Brick’s father is Big Daddy – the respected James Earl Jones – a large, funny but dying plantation owner who emotionally abuses his wife, Big Momma, played by Phylicia Rashad. Both men seem indifferent to their wives but ‘wish that it were true (that their wives loved them)’.
Relations are strained throughout and the beauty of Williams’ script is that we are so absorbed by the emotions on stage that we do not consider that the characters are supposed to be white. Director Debbie Allen has chosen an all-black cast, turning conventions in an entirely natural way. As she puts it, ‘There is a universality about Tenessee’s characters and their situations.’ This family could be of any race, from any country or time. Themes of alcoholism, sexual suppression, jealousy and dependance are present in any family. The Novello’s production does not lose any of the genius of the original play by portraying Williams’ famous charcters as black.
This play is about drink and despair in the Deep South but despite the pervading melancholy, by the end of the play you love these characters even when they have shown themselves at their most cruel. Each can be identified with; the escapism through alcohol of Brick, the remorse and sexual frustration of Maggie, the pathetic nature of Big Momma and the cruel indifference of Big Daddy. Each character is a part of us and this excellent production at the Novello Theatre in Covent Garden does not let you forget that.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will run at the Novello Theatre until April 2010.