As has already been stated on here, I'm a huge Tennessee Williams fan. Seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with such theatre heavyweights was, I thought, going to be a revelation but sadly, I was disappointed. Not in the play but in some of the performances.
In the story Brick, the heavy drinker around whom the story revolves, tells Big Daddy that he is waiting for the 'click' - a moment when the drink kicks in. That's how I felt when watching this production, waiting for the 'click'. Not the drink but that essence that sweeps you into the story and lives of the characters - the moment you forget you're in a theatre. Unfortunately the 'click' never really came. It was close a few times, but like in the story - it was continuously being thwarted.
On the surface it's difficult to not get involved to an extent as it's such a great play it would have to be performed by complete incompetents to be completely ruined. Tennessee Williams has written such rich dialogue and an intriguing story that no matter how it's performed there is always a level of enjoyment. Not too long ago I listened to a BBC radio version of the play and wasn't entirely satisfied because although the language was great I felt I was missing important visual interaction between the characters so it never really came as alive as I felt it should. This new West End production is the first time I have seen it on stage and it made me understand for the first time, what the characters intentions were. And, it also pointed out to me where the production failed.
Here's the story - Brick, a former college star athlete and later successful sports announcer, has fallen upon hard times after 'taking to the drink'. Mourning the death of his friend and fellow athlete Skipper, he breaks his leg while attempting to jump hurdles drunk and is somehwat temporarily immobilised with his leg in a cast. He is married to Maggie but there isn't any love or affection (or childrent) in the marriage. As the story begins we discover that Brick's father, the immensly wealthy Big Daddy, may or may not be dying and that issue of who would inherit the fortune is at the forefront of many family members minds. The most active in the quest for the monney is Brick's brother Gooper and his annoying wife Mae who have had many children to try and steer the vote in their favour. Of course that's the storyline but the real story is the question of Brick's relationship with Skipper - whether they were more than 'friends' - and how this unrecognised issue affects both Brick and those around him.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has three main elements to the story. The first is Brick's relationship with his wife Maggie (the Cat of the title, also self proclaimed), the second is Brick's relationship with his father Big Daddy and the third is the story of the inheritance. For me the two most crucial elements are the opening almost monologue by Maggie and the later almost monologue of Big Daddy's. In each section Brick is trying to get the 'click' yet it's being thwarted by having these other two talk to and at him, incessantly. On one level it would seem that the two big performances get it right, they do but only on one level. Sanaa Lathan as Maggie (Tv''s Nip/Tuck and Tony nomination for her role as Beneatha Unger in A Raisin in the Sun) gets across the incessant chatter and you can feel the opressive nature of having someone talk at you but she doesn't get across the other elements. Maggie is a sex kitten and she is also a manipulator. Her entire opening scene is her attempt to get a rise out of Brick - emotionally, intellectually and sexually. She challenges him, not directly, but by presenting ideas and situations that she hopes he will either refute or accept. Ms Lathan never got the manipulation part. We got the chatter but not the intention.
Unfortuantely (again) I got the same from James Earl Jones as Big Daddy. In this play it's about what's unsaid. In the big scene between Big Daddy and Brick (which can be seen as a companion piece to the first with Maggie and Brick) Big Daddy goes on and on about himself and his less than satisfactory realtionship with Big Mama (and excellent Phylica Rashad who created a character very much unlike herself and threw herself into it). Brick often mentions that this incessant talk is something Big Daddy always does and that it never seems to go anywhere and that's how it came across to me. What was forgotten is for the scene to be important it has to be viewed as ' so why is this time different?'. What should have made it different is that Big Daddy pretty much knows about Brick and Skipper but is unable to come right out and say it. So he resorts to the same tactics as Maggie, trying to manipulate Brick through the telling of stories and the asking of seemingly unrelated questions. Mr Jones delivery baffled me as well, I found it hard to listen to and never got the intention. It was just rambling.
Now on to Brick. As written, Brick (played in this production by Adrian Lester (Tv's Hustle, the film Primary Colors and an Olivier award for his lead in the Sondheim musical Company) is dodging the truth by drinking. It's all made more difficult by having to dodge the bullets being fired at him by his family. It's a role that heavily relies on the assault. You have to really be assaulted to really have to dodge the bullets. As the assaults were minor, his retreat was minor and all he was left with was his back story and the drink. When he lashed out in reaction it came across as ' that was a bit over the top wasn't it?'. Not Adrian Lester's fault.
So, those are the basics. How was everyone else? Standouts for me were Peter De Jersey (Tv's Holby City and a recent stint at the RSC) as Gooper the brother and Nina Sosanya (loads of theatre, Tv's Teachers and the film Love, Actually) as Mae really hit the mark. Both balanced the humour and deperation of going full throttle for the inheritance and made their attacks on other family members understandable. Late in the play Gooper has a last desperate plea for why he should be entilted and Mr De Jersey nails it.
The scenic design by Morgan Large (Tick, Tick... Boom!, The Last Five Years, Fame and Footloose all West End) was fine and the direction is by Debbie Allen (Tv's Fame and on stage as the last Bob Fosse Charity in Sweet Charity). Other than it being serviceable, I have to wonder how many of the choices to not go after the visceral, manipulative elements were down to direction and not the choice of the actors. I have the feeling that there was an attempt to make the characters more likeable. That was a big mistake. Even in the darkest places you can find some light and to not trust Tennesee Williams Pulitzer winning masterpiece is a somewhat foolish choice. All the elements are there, you just have to mine a bit deeper to find the gold.