Like it or not, Cats is a big deal. It's 35 years old and still packs out theatres with audiences of dedicated fans, as well as the merely curious who want to know what all the fuss could be about. I sort of put myself in the latter category. I find a lot of musicals ridiculous and hammy, but occasionally I encounter one that grabs me by my secretly sequinned underpants and slaps me in the face with its cheery fabulousness. Cats is fun, Cats is lively, Cats is crazy, Cats is classic, Cats will make you feel as though you've been through something important – something meaningful, even though on the surface of things, Cats is a plotless tale about a hotchpotch bunch of felines mooching about a scrap yard.
And what a fine scrap yard it is too. This new and improved version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most famous work (well, it's up there) brings a tremendous set complete with over-sized litter and discarded white goods (I was sitting near the oven so it's stayed with me) and spectacular lighting effects that have advanced enormously since I last saw the show about fifteen years ago – that's the power of LEDs for you. The costumes are more or less as they always have been; i.e., very, very tight and slinky (I once witnessed a Cat in full costume smoking a cigarette outside the stage door in broad daylight; it was a most surreal and marvellous sight). The most obvious and deliberate change to this incarnation of the show, however, is to the character of Rum Tum Tugger. In the original, he was a sort of Elvis/James Dean style rock 'n' roll rebel. Now he is, er, 'street'… or something. He has been brought up to date, and, because I am not up to date, I can't really comment on whether or not he has been brought up to date successfully. All I can say is that Marquelle Ward, who plays the part, cheekily and gleefully busts some modish moves that are distinctly out of place within the context of the rest of the musical. But this is fitting, considering his role as the dissenter. I enjoyed it.
Another standout performer is Marianne Benedict as aged glamour puss Grizabella. It is she who must deliver 'Memory', and if 'Memory' fails, then Cats fails. Reader, it did not fail (I don't want to say anything else, just trust me).
Now, although I did say that Cats was plotless, because the entire musical is Webber's interpretation of and homage to T.S. Eliot's poetry (one of the factors that back in the day made Cats so risky and today makes it full-on for the cast as they perform back-to-back numbers with no dialogue or narrative breaks) it is useful to know the basic premise before you go. All you need to remember is: 1. The cats' tribe is called 'Jellicle'; 2. That night will be the Jellicle Ball during which one cat will be chosen to go to the 'Heaviside Layer' (heaven-ish) and come back to a new life; 3. The rest of the musical is merely a presentation of the key characters from the Jellicle tribe. That's it! Perhaps that's what's so wonderful about Cats – you don't have to think. You don't have to work anything out. You're not going to be teased with a clever plot twist. You're not going to be discussing anything too deep over your interval ice cream.
And yet, somehow, you will be moved.
You will find yourself thinking about what it is to be young, and then what it is to be old, and then what it is you should be doing with this life. Because Cats just do what they like, don't they? They don't care what anyone thinks. They just do what they want, and they look good, and they move good, and they nap good, and then when they die they don't even die. They come back to at least 8 more lives of good living.
Cats got it good.