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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF
at the Novello Theatre

LIES A FAMILY TELLS
By ALLEN ROBERTSON

  James Earl Jones/ Ph: Nobby Clark

My, oh my, that Mr. Williams surely did relish his words. Listen to Tennessee’s top trio – The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and you find yourself smothered by the aching heat of life. For my money the bruised grace that Williams embeds in these poetic spiels can’t be equalled anywhere else in American theatre.
 
All of his scripts pit hope against despair, life against death. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he bangs right up against his own metaphors: there is real death hovering on the doorstep. Big Daddy’s cancer is about to kill him and, even though everyone is trying to avoid this truth, it will not be cloaked by what Big Daddy himself describes as “the smell of mendacity.”  

Having an actor of the stature of James Earl Jones utter that line is absolutely irresistible. From the moment he makes his entrance – an hour after we have taken our seats – Jones dominates the action. What distinguishes director Debbie Allen’s production more than anything else is the fact that the father and son scene between Big Daddy and Brick (virtually the entire second act) is revealed as the true heart of the play. 

In Williams’ world, families have the power to bruise one another beyond repair. When Brick spews out the truth about his father’s health it is not so much a slip of the tongue as a tit for tat repayment for Big Daddy’s attempt to make Brick confront his own mendacity – that Brick, thrown by his best friend’s confession of gay desire, chose to hang up the phone. And now he must live with the reality that this rejection precipitated his friend’s suicide. 

Jones bulldozes through all of this with a dazzling grandstanding power. Adrian Lester’s Brick plays a far more subtle game. Lester, who won a 1996 Olivier Award as Bobby in the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, gives us a daringly risky interpretation of a self-destructive man-child who never wanted to grow up. 

He is so detached that he all but sleepwalks through the first act as Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) harangues him about the imminent dangers of life: her childless, him alcoholic, his father about to die intestate, his lawyer brother conniving to toss Brick and Maggie off the roof, or at least kick them out the back door. 

Brick quite simply can’t be bothered. His serene indifference to thousands of acres and millions of dollars confounds every other member of his family. Then, suddenly, in the midst of his altercation with Big Daddy, comes a galvanic spew of hatred, fear and self-loathing that is as startling for its rage as it is for its brevity. 

In an instant, as we in the audience are still reeling, Brick once again dons his carapace of the drunk, the disillusioned, the disinterested. And life pretends to move on.
 
Who’s kidding? Certainly not Mr. Williams.
 
(This strictly limited season, running through April 10, is a West End transfer of Debbie Allen's hugely successful 2008 Broadway production.)
 
 

 

 


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