To see a black cat cross your path is a proverbial sign of good luck. The all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1955 Tennessee Williams' classic, certainly had good luck in spades on Broadway. It was a box-office smash, grossing more than $14m (£8.4m) in its limited 20-week run and its audiences included many African-Americans who were going to the theatre for the first time.
With James Earl Jones (aka the voice of Darth Vader) still in stunning form as Big Daddy, but recast in many key roles, Debbie Allen's production opened last night in the West End. Did it prove that there is a creative coherence as well as a commercial canniness to the reverse-race concept? The answer is warmly affirmative. My thought beforehand was that it would not only be encouraging for black punters but salutary for white ones, too, to have the experience that black people have most of the time – that is, of seeing people of another colour monopolising a theatrical highlight.
The producers have argued that, as far interpretation goes, the casting is neutral. Certainly Williams's drama is not like Othello, which turns on the issue of racial difference, and was once mounted by Jude Kelly in a colour-reversed production in Washington, with Patrick Stewart's hero as the lone white in an all-black society. Nor is the play a cheerful piece of apolitical fluff like Hello Dolly, which famously ran with a cast of African-American performers and starring Pearl Bailey. In Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, which is located in the Deep South, the strong racial assumptions are implicit. Big Daddy is the redneck owner of a prime 28,000 acre plantation. To make this plausible, the proceedings have been fairly unobtrusively shifted to the 1980s here, with the patriarch described as a former "Mississippi field hand".
What is remarkable, though, about Allen's compelling, sensitive and acerbically comic production is how swiftly you become so absorbed by the universal elements in the story that you almost completely forget about the counter-intuitive colour of the actors' skins. I can imagine a production in which black actors ironically appropriated the drama in the way that gay troupes have subversively colonised the same author's A Streetcar Named Desire. But this version of Cat is all the more powerful for being, within its altered terms, played straight.
An exposure of the lies that have acted as the family's life support system, the play stars our very own Adrian Lester as Brick, the former college football player who has turned to drink to escape from the "mendacity" he sees around him. At first Lester seemed oddly subdued and all effete detachment in his scenes with Sanaa Cathan's beautiful and fractiously frustrated Maggie, the "cat" of the title who can't compete with the memory of the sexually ambiguous Brick's dead male friend. Hobbling about on a plastered-up broken angle, Brick is driven to keep throwing his crutches at his verbally demanding wife and Lester's hero performs this routine in rather too expert a manner as though he has been practising for an accident and emergency sports day.
He rises to the occasion splendidly though in the long second act confrontation with Big Daddy, who is portrayed in a very funny and forceful performance by Jones. Confronted with a mimed song of birthday praise by the kiddies, this overbearingly bulky man widens his eyes in low-key horror as though being granted a daunting preview of purgatory. He's great at conveying the uncensored indiscretions of the blithe autocrat and at cackling with unholy childish glee in his deluded belief that his cancer is in remission, thus allowing him to bamboozle the players in the succession crisis. From Lester's Brick he elicits the pain, exasperated amusement and anxiety that have had to be numbed by drink. There's a delicacy in Lester's acting from then on and at last there emerges, in heart-twisting quantities, the quality that had earlier on been lacking – the wistful, charismatic charm of the defeated.