David Ian Productions
13 December 2013
Regent Theatre (UK tour)
Friday 13th might be unlucky for some, but for me it provided the opportunity to fulfil a life-long wish — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 hit Cats, live on stage. Part musical, part song-cycle and part dance show, the production was viewed with scepticism when it was first announced — “most people thought that Cameron and I were stark staring bonkers”, as Lloyd Webber himself puts it — but famously went on to break records as the West End’s longest-running musical, a feat only broken in 2006 by another Cameron Mackintosh production, Les Misérables.
Cats performs at the Oliver Awards 2013 in celebration of choreographer Gillian Lynne (YouTube: westendcallum)
As the feline-esque performers appear out of the tumbling heap of set, to the unmistakable first bars of the overture, the stage is set for a heart-warming evening of musical theatre heritage. Each performer is exactly how I remember from the days when I would watch the video version over and over, until the tape wore out: a tribute to how wonderfully effective the costumes and make-up are, as they have recreated the same familiar faces year in, year out, with ever-changing casts. The scenery too must be a joy to create, with fantastic levels of detail: amongst the rubbish heap that is the cats’ night-time playground, TUC boxes, tennis rackets, newspaper and bicycle wheels create towering piles, hidden entrances and unexpected props, overflowing off the front of the stage into the first row of seats. Installing this at each venue on the tour must be a bit of a mission, to say the least!
As fans of the show will know, each cat has its own distinctive nature: from the exuberant, rock star-like Rum Tum Tugger, to the sleek and mysterious Egpytian Cassandra, the individual personalities give the production heart and character to work with. Even cast members who do not feature in their own song have singular traits and steps that prevent them blurring into one chorus line. Yet Cats remains most at its most thrilling when the whole ensemble move together, their bodies flying across the stage, creeping towards the audience or striking a pose. I wanted about three more pairs of eyes to look at everything at once, particularly during the opening ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ sequence, a long song and dance number that requires both flamboyance and stamina — and this cast certainly deliver. There is so much detail in each turn of the head, each twist of the leg, and each wiggle of the derrière (there’s a lot of them, let’s be honest…), proving again the sheer genius of Gillian Lynne’s renowned choreography.
And it’s not all about the dancing: the ensemble’s vocals don’t suffer in the face of such physical exertion, generating a powerful choral sound with some gorgeous soaring sopranos at the top. These voices are in fact rather let down by the tech in solo numbers, as the mics create a full but somehow artificial sound: I would rather they were left more on the raw side, as these performers clearly don’t need this much assistance.
While the acrobatic dancing and jubilant choruses would melt the stoniest of faces into a broad grin, there is something undeniably eerie in the spoken sections, when all the cats creep towards the front of the stage, arms (paws?) outstretched, eyes fixed on the audience… it’s this element of danger and mystery that underlies many of the numbers, preventing the show from becoming a little too fluffy. The fourth wall is repeatedly broken throughout this self-consciously performative show, and the cats frequently spill out into the auditorium, racing around and flitting between the rows, to the delight — and occasional consternation — of the younger audience members. It’s a great device to make the audience feel that they are entering the world of the cats, instead of vice versa, but it does become a little overused, losing that sheen of novelty and excitement on each repetition.
It was an absolute thrill to see my favourite numbers performed before my eyes — ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’, ‘Skimbleshanks’, ‘Mister Mistoffelees’ and, of course, the burlesque-like ‘Macavity’, delivered with panache by lead vocalists Lily Frazer (Demeter) and Melissa James (Bombalurina). Yet there are also a few changes on this new tour, most notably the re-inclusion of the original elements of ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’: a decision that I rather disagree with, as the sequence becomes too long and, quite frankly, a little tedious. Yet this is a short blip in a show that is still looking pretty slick for its age. The most famous moment is, of course, ‘Memory’. Approaching a number as well-known and oft-repeated as this is a challenge for any actress, rather like Fantine approaching ‘I Dream A Dream’, or Hamlet having to recite ‘To be or not to be…’. I admit I expected it to be underwhelming, but Joanna Ampil as Grizabella proved me entirely wrong, much to my delight. On reaching the rousing key change, the power of the vocals alongside the raw edge in her voice gave me goose pimples, reminding me why it’s such a classic: the swelling emotion can’t leave you unmoved, and it really is a star performance from this seasoned actress.
With such ingrained love for a show, it’s easy to walk into the auditorium with expectations that just can’t be met, so high are they. Cats is no doubt an unusual show — really, there’s still nothing like it in musical theatre — but this new incarnation shows off all the elements that made it such a wild success. There’s a touch of syrupy sentimentality here and there, but it stays on the right side of ‘jazz hands’ territory: the sparks are still flying thirty years on for a whole new generation to see.