Thursday, January 14, 2010

Theatre Review : Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams - Novello Theatre (dir Debbie Allen 4/1/10)

There's something going on here I don't understand. Why was the theatre half-full for this production? OK, so it was just after New Year and it was cold - but it was before January's snows descended, and further reductions in prices have just been announced. This looked as if it had all the boxes ticked for a sell-out - a transfer of a top Broadway production, a well-loved film star in James Earl Jones, a TV star from a popular series in Adrian Lester, consistently good reviews, good marketing with James Earl Jones doing the TV sofas and the Underground covered in posters.

So why is this not packing them? Is it that Tennessee Williams' reputation is for intense, shouty plays with a lot of angst and not many jokes? If so, that is very unfair, as Cat On a Hot Tin Roof may be intense, but it is also consistently funny as well. Is there some British distaste at the transposition from a Southern white family in the 50s to a black family in the 80s? Once again, that would be very unreasonable, as the transposition is virtually seemless to anyone who is not familiar with the original text. It's certainly not as dramatic as the Moliere being updated to contemporary London, as is happening across the city with The Misanthrope.

It certainly can't be anything to do with the cast or the production - they are all consistently good, while James Earl Jones excels as the odious Big Daddy. He has the presence, the charisma of the patriach, swearing testily at the family sycophants celebrating his birthday. Yet he tries to connect to his ex-sports star son Brick, intent on drinking himself to oblivion. Adrian Lester hits the emotional high notes well, but didn't convince as a seasoned drinker - he always seemed too clean cut and in control. That being said, his relationship with the sinuous, sexy Cat, Sanaa Lathan, was finely drawn.

This didn't draw you into the vortex in the same way that Streetcar at the Donmar did earlier this year - this is as much the theatrical dynamics of the Donmar's claustophobia as it is about Rachel Weisz's multilayered Blanche Dubois - but it certainly packed a hefty punch.

So why the poor turnout? Two reasons, possibly. A first is that there seems to be a lot of quality drama in the West End at the moment, and the regular theatregoers who go to such productions have difficulties stretching to many evenings out at West End prices. The second reason may be more complex. We are now so familiar with black faces on the British stage that it has long since ceased to be a matter worth commenting upon - I've see Adrian Lester himself play both Henry V and Hamlet, excellent in both roles, and the fact that he was black was never an issue. Could there be some sort of a subconcious reaction on this side of the Atlantic to the fact that this is an all-black production, not through any prejudice on the part of your typically white middle-class London theatre audience, but because this is felt to be a bit unnecessary, a bit old-fashioned, and that we have moved beyond the place where we need all-black productions? I don't know. I do know that the transposition is worthwhile because it works and that those who have chosen to give it a miss will be missing out on an excellent evening.

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