[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/48751?ns=guardian&pageName=Cat+on+a+Hot+Tin+Roof%2C+Sweet+Charity+and+Jiggery+Pokery+%7C+Theatre+review%3AArticle%3A1314985&ch=Stage&c3=Obs&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CTennessee+Williams&c6=Susannah+Clapp&c7=09-Dec-06&c8=1314985&c9=Article&c10=Feature%2CReview&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Tennessee Williams fails to raise the temperature but there are hot hoofers galore at the Menier, says Susannah Clapp
The news about Debbie Allen's Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that the play is for the first time performed by an all-black cast. Within minutes of the curtain going up, that news is forgotten. Just as for years white audiences have forgotten that they have been seeing only white faces on the stage.
You might think that Tennessee Williams's play, set on a southern plantation, wouldn't make sense without a bullying white figure looming over the action. Updating it from the segregationist 50s to the 80s more or less removes the objection (though Morgan Large's lazily slatted design looks fairly retro) and makes Williams's play look like one of the ur-plays about fighting American families.
It inspired a whole dramatic dynasty of squalling beauties and sullen husbands; without it, August: Osage County and Dallas might never have existed. It is massively too much chewed over, and over-metaphored illness hangs like a moral tag around the necks of characters. Yet it also tilts unexpectedly into scourging dialogues. Allen's production catches both aspects of the play: its lumbering explicitness and its wonderful surges. The first half straggles; the second half soars.
Big Daddy is dying of cancer, though his family tell him it's just that his guts are wrenched. James Earl Jones brings his Darth Vader boom to the part of the breezy bully, and also an unnerving friskiness: minutes before he lets loose a wail of pain, he has been caressing a pair of imaginary airy buttocks. Adrian Lester hobbles around on a crutch: he's a sensitive cripple, which is to say undeclared homosexual, and he's a drunk; he is strangely enclosed. He and his wife don't have children; his nephews breed ferociously.
It's hard to think of a play in which children are more hideous and women more fixated on child-bearing. You could hardly say the roof was hot here, more lukewarm, for all the underarm swiping and cheek-patting which is supposed to announce anxiety and success.
The Menier's revival of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity is a harsh little account of a dance-hall hostess who begins by getting dumped in a river by a tightwad and ends by getting dumped in a psychological mess by a tightarse; the choreography is spiky; the music is brassy; the girls are sneery-going-on-sentimental.
Director Matthew White turns all this into an advantage. The worse-than-hopeless men are all played by Mark Umbers, who makes himself plausible (pleadingly vulnerable, winkingly intellectual, snappingly Latin) by his melodiousness. The major numbers are cleverly choreographed by Stephen Mear, who never tries to be beguiling but lets the bleak and humorous story tell itself: "Big Spender" is sung with a spell-binding can't-be-arsedness by a chorus of heavy-limbed women: one of them cleans out her eyes as she's coming on to her clients. "Rhythm of Life" is rendered as a desperate, swoozy piece of irony by a bandanna'd crew of hippies, who are beaming, blank-eyed, slack-jawed, hardly able to swing to any rhythm. Tamzin Outhwaite, an elegant dancer and capable singer, is perfect as the dumpee partly because she doesn't invite sympathy (who's going to dump alluring her?) and because she turns into a knock-kneed, slightly dazed version of a 60s chick; when she sticks her chewing gum on the bedpost, you know she means it.
Amanda Lawrence is a one-person riposte to the pantomime dame: the woman who at Christmas becomes a man. Anyone who saw Kneehigh's Brief Encounter will remember her as the beaky underling who morphed into the upper-class woman with dog. Now in Jiggery Pokery she evokes the life of Charles Hawtrey, the wisp of an actor who made Kenneth Williams look like Tarzan; who in 1960s Carry On films would turn up with a bouquet for a Plod, and a lot of eyebrow-wagging; who proclaimed himself as having aristocratic credentials and who had a mother sinking into dementia who was obsessed by toilet rolls. Lawrence - with the help of a scream and a wiggle like a pipecleaner, shimmies through his life in pale green trousers and rimless specs, with a boa which she whips around around her neck and head to make herself into her own adversaries. She can make her face look like an ostrich beak, all flat mouth and bulging eyes. She makes an occasion into an event.
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Guardian: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Charity and Jiggery Pokery | Theatre review
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