Seeing a deal on lastminute for restricted view tickets for a tenner, I thought I’d squeeze this revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in for a Saturday matinee, but was almost jeopardised by the seats we were allocated: seats AA1&2 in the Grand Circle don’t actually have a restricted view of the stage, because you are actually facing the audience! The seats are about 120 degrees to the stage so you’re basically facing most of the Grand Circle, a great opportunity to fulfil my Glenn Close in Dangerou Liaisons fantasy, but not the best for playwatching. To see the stage, you need to twist round and then lean quite far forward, which then forces everyone else in the row to lean too. Fortunately, with a house that was only 75% full, we were able to relocate at the end of the first act, but it is truly outrageous that these seats are up for sale at all.
As for the play itself, it is an updated version relocated into the 1980s according to the show literature, although there were curiously few references to this and I don’t think I would have worked it out had I not been informed of it. It’s a tale of a wealthy landowning family who are struggling to conceal the cracks caused by repressed homosexuality, inheritance struggles, alcoholism and the shadow of terminal illness, and I suppose the one benefit of shifting the timing of the play enables the fact that the cast are all black to be not considered an issue.
And it is a strong cast: headed up by James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad who originated the roles of the ailing patriarch Big Daddy and his wife Big Mama on Broadway, Rashad showing the quiet dignity of an abused wife, unwilling to accept the impending mortality of her husband. Adrian Lester and Sanaa Lathan were also superb as the warring spouses, struggling to deal with his alcoholism and her sexual frustration, Lathan in particular has a stunning first act in which she is practically delivering an hour long monologue. Excellent support also comes from Nina Sosanya and Peter De Jersey as the other children, hungry for their share of the inheritance.
One thing that really surprised me was the audience reaction to James Earl Jones. I found the applauding of his arrival onstage and then his final scene as he left with Big Mama really quite intrusive and offensive to the other actors. I don’t agree with applause upon arrival in any case: they are ac
tors and should be rewarded for good acting at the end, not just for turning up, much like Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, one shouldn’t be granting these things for the potential to deliver. And the fact that it took people about 5 seconds after the curtain rose on Act 2 to realise JEJ was onstage and therefore deliver him a feeble round of applause meant that the scene had already commenced and the other actors were forced to restart, all very bizarre. And whilst some elements of his character were darkly comic, I found the laughter at his misogynistic, barbed comments to his wife quite disturbing.
I did really enjoy this play (once we’d moved) and one thing that struck me was the diversity of the audience, quite a rarity in the West End, and I thought to myself ‘well this is a good thing’, but later I questioned that somewhat. This is a universal story, there’s nothing particularly ‘black’ about the issues raised within, yet it takes the casting ‘gimmick’ in order to appeal to this audience. If this really is the case, then it is a shame as truly great acting, hints of which are contained within, is colour-blind.