Review – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Those who know the Whingers will be aware that Phil is very conventional, abhors change and is rather partial to tradition. Even the more easy-going, liberal and forward-looking Andrew has habits, some of which are rather disagreeable.

So trying something new and indulging in a little experimentation is for them somewhat outré.

The Whingers attended the final preview of Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Novello Theatre last night and the novelty was not that it was an all-black cast, but that they had already seen it a week earlier at the dress rehearsal.

And the test was not whether they could keep their mouths shut (which apart from a teensy Twitter they surprised themselves and did) but whether this would prove once and for all that reviewing early previews (for which they are oft criticised ) is unfair. Does a lot happen between early previews and opening night? Were they putting themselves on the line and undermining their modus operandi?

Yes the dress rehearsal! How stupendously grand the Whingers felt. And unlike the Salahis who gatecrashed Obama’s first White House state dinner the Whingers were actually invited (First? He was elected over a year ago! Is Michelle a slacker in the kitchen?). There they were in a house packed with theatricals (and Moira Stewart filling in her days) and director  Debbie Allen herself introduced the show (albeit 25 minutes after the slated start time) declaring, “You’re all friends so I know you’re going to give us a good reception”.

Well not quite. If Debbie Allen is a friend of Andrew then he has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about it. But Phil, whilst not on her Christmas card list yet, did receive a personal dance lesson from her on the top deck of a London double decker bus as it hurtled round the city’s tourist attractions with the kids from Fame on board in the early 80s. It was the first and last time that anyone has asked for his autograph. And since you asked, Phil still dances like his father which calls Ms Allen’s famous choreographic skills into question somewhat.

But one thing the Whingers are not calling into question is Ms Allen’s directorial prowess.

COAHTR is takes place in real time at a family estate in Mississippi. The alcoholic Brick (Adrian Lester) is hopping around on a crutch having broken his leg. He is unhappily married to the childless Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) who gets practically all the lines in the first act.

Brick’s brother Gooper (Peter de Jersey) and his wife Mae (Nina Sosanya) can’t stop breeding.

Brick’s and Gooper’s father Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) is dying and Gooper and Mae are anxious to get their hands on his considerable wealth. They are all gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday but neither he nor Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) know that it will in all likelihood be his last.

The cast are rather excellent, Lathan’s Maggie has to carry the first act and does so rather well. Andrew particularly enjoyed the business she did dabbing at her armpits with paper tissues. Although she seemed a little stronger last night the Whingers did miss the armchair breaking during this act in an on stage-fight at the dress rehearsal. The Whingers think this should be reinstated.

Earl Jones’s performance is hugely enjoyable although both Whingers took a bit of time tuning in to his speech as he seemed to swallow his words somewhat. It may have been a character thing or possibly the cold which which he has been suffering (but seems to be on the mend now, better than he was at the dress). Anyway, once tuned in, we found him rather engrossing and less avuncular than the first time round at the dress which is probably the right way to go although – heavens – there’s not really anyone particularly nice in this play, is there? Of the family only Big Mama and to some degree Maggie seem to deserve any sympathy. The most delightful person is the Reverend Tooker who – rather excitingly as far as the Whingers are concerned – is played by childhood hero Play Away presenter Derek Griffiths.

Rashad makes a very entertaining Big Mama and we would like to see her in more things, but we failed to spot her elegant curtain call curtsey when we saw it at the dress. Do look out for it. We would also like to see her stopping a pig in a passage.

The lighting is still slightly dodgy with the lights dimming on spotlit characters for the “big speeches”. This is a play not a musical; we were half expecting them to break into a big ballad. And there’s something hay-wire with the design. Having read the programme, Andrew decide to set a little test for the entourage in the interval, asking them when they thought the production was set. All of them guessed the 1950s which is what the Whingers assumed when they saw it at the dress. Strangely, it is supposed to be set in the 1980s but Morgan Large‘s design screams Douglas Sirk louder than it does Aaron Spelling.

On the other hand there were sparklers on stage (you wait all year and then get two chances in a week).

Williams does overdo the “cat on a hot tin roof” metaphor. OK, Tennessee, we got it the first time. Phil started counting how many times the line is repeated in various forms but ran out of fingers. And Brick, who drinks heavily throughout, bangs on about waiting for the moment the alcohol really kicks in as “the click”. The Whingers will be passing this expression off as their own. Of course Andrew’s “click” usually occurs much earlier in an evening than Phil’s, which is how the trouble usually starts.

So what was the corollary of the Whingers’ little trial? Did it prove anything? Are they wrong to review previews? Well, in this case they’d enjoyed it considerably at the dress and don’t think it would pass muster as “scientific” with Ben Goldacre. But we have enjoyed saying “When we saw the dress….”

We suppose that it must be a testament to this production that both Whingers sat through all three hours of it twice and enjoyed themselves. Well done, Debbie.

Footnotes:

  • COAHTR recommends itself as suitable for those over the age of 12. It even does special rates for school parties, though the website doesn’t seem to mention the age restriction.Considering the generous use of the “F” words added to Mr Williams’ text the Whingers are very worried about the future of our children and Phil sees this as a damning indictment of our society.
  • It’s extraordinary that this is only the fourth West End production of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1955 drama ever but somehow less incredible that Phil has been knocking round long enough to have seen three of them.
  • Despite being thoroughly entertained, Andrew’s biggest laugh came from the story Phil related to him during the 5 minute pause between Acts 2 and 3, regular Whinger entourage member Lady Skipper (namechecked in the text several times, coincidentally) eschewed Phil’s entreaties to join them on this outing declaring grandly “I’ll reply to your emails when you offer me something interesting”. “But it’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” replied Phil.  The Grande Dame (who hates musicals) was suddenly sheepish: “Oh dear I got confused, I thought you meant Fiddler on the Roof.”
  • Wasn’t Richard Blackwood well known once? Try and spot him among the many servants. (No, disappointingly the staff aren’t played by white folk –  didn’t they think this through?) But he is also listed as understudy to Brick. The thing is though – Brick has a leg in plaster and hobbles around on crutches so even if Adrian Lester breaks a leg he still won’t need an understudy. Blackwood may have a long wait.

11 Responses to “Review – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    Don’t know if it was the pressure of First Night, or the fact I knocked back too much of Sir Cameron’s champagne to stay awake for all three acts, but I felt it was a bit ‘so what’ ?

    The transposition of the action from the 50s to the 80s justifies the all-black casting but also de-sensationalises Brick’s closet homosexuality, and of course there’s no mention of Aids, since the ‘new gay cancer’ might have overshadowed Big Daddy’s regular kind.

    Debbie Allen looked a bit scary close-up, but fortunately wasn’t wearing leg-warmers. In fact with the theatre’s heating system jacked up to the heat of a Louisiana swamp, it’s surprising she was wearing anything.

    Cat on a room-temperature Tin Roof for me, although Adrian Lester is undeniably the most gorgeous thing to appear in white silk pyjamas since Gertude Lawrence stepped on to that balcony in Private Lives in 1929.

  2. Simone Says:

    6 F words, I counted.

  3. J.A. Says:

    Didn’t think you remembered 1929 John!

  4. webcowgirl Says:

    Huh. I am surprised that you enjoyed this as I thought it was such a limp noodle, too long and overcooked.


  5. […] performance can be seen on the New York Times’s website. The considerably more positive West End Whingers‘ review is also available. I side with the Times on this one.) Possibly related posts: […]

  6. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    CATS on a Hot Tin Roof is actually my next sequel. (Can Brian Blessed bungee jump?)


  7. Also in the supporting cast is Guy Burgess (he who caught the car keys). Great name. Do you think he is the son of the Spy Who Loved Me? Well, you never know.

  8. A Clown Says:

    Given the strength of feeling about cheap seats on the Misanthrope thread, I thought I’d let you know what you can expect if you were to purchase a restricted view ticket at this theatre from lastminute.com: seats AA1&2 don’t actually have a restricted view, 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. 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 only 75% full, we were able to relocate, but it is truly outrafeous that these seats are up for sale at all.
    As for the play, I quite liked it, but found the applauding of James Earl Jones’ arrival and then his final scene as he left with Big Mama really quite annoying, do people really love him that much?

  9. A Clown Says:

    Did you see the dress? That is brand new information!
    It was random, the applause for his arrival didn’t even start for about 10 seconds aftr the curtain had gone up, so they’d already started the scene and then there was a pathetic dribble of applause, the actors stopped and then eventually restarted. Most bizarre.

  10. Jenko Says:

    It also happened at the preview I saw and someone shouted ‘Yo, Star Wars!’ in amongst the applause


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