Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 30-year old musical spectacular Cats is currently in its second life, doing the rounds of local theatres after three decades of success in the West End.
I first saw this show as a spellbound young teenager in London. My dad took me to the theatre and at the time it was a magical, wondrous experience. I remember sitting in the tiered seats looking down on the set and being amazed at the costumes, the background, the props, and of course the cats and their songs. So it seemed only fitting, 25 years later, that my dad should accompany me to review the show, and we both looked forward to it with hope and nostalgia.
The show started with an explosion of music and lights as we were introduced to the cat’s junkyard – an abandoned tip of human rubbish under a railway line - and our purring cast appeared slinking up and down the aisles during the opening sequence, thrilling the audience with their gracefulness before rejoining the rest of the cat crew onstage. This is a musical in the purest sense – everything is set to music, and the first half of the show saw cat character after character reeling off their individual stories through song. We meet the lazy Old Gumbie Cat, then the feisty, rebellious Rum Tum Tugger (who definitely has moves like Jagger), Grizabella the Glamour Cat who is now down on her luck and running out of time, Bustopher Jones the cat who likes the good life and won’t stop eating, before the old sage Deuteronomy appears, and there seems to be some kind of story going on – up to this point it was a little disjointed, as one cat’s story led into another without much explanation or sense.
Looking at the names of the cats, we can only imagine the kind of psychedelic drugs available to Lloyd Webber during the late 70’s when he decided to set the poems of one of his favourite childhood books – T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – to music. Before he wrote the musical Cats, he had always written the music first and the words came later, so this was a complete reversal of process for him and thus a real gamble – as Lloyd Webber says in the programme forward, ‘To be truthful, people thought that Cameron (Mackintosh, the original producer) and I were stark raving bonkers. We opened in May 1981 with half our investment missing and a second mortgage on my house.’ Thirty-odd years later, the gamble is still paying off.
The first half draws to a close with Grizabella’s first performance of ‘Memory’ – when I think of Cats, I don’t remember that this beautiful haunting song is from this show – the music I associate with the musical are the more lively numbers, like 'The Rum Tum Tugger', 'Macavity' and 'Mr Mistoffelees' – so after we had enjoyed a lively first half of non-stop cattery, music, lights and much feline preening and posing, the haunting melody performed by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat who is past her best, really caught me out and ended the first half with unexpected emotion.
After the interval, the second half continued in much the same vein with lively but somewhat disjointed individual scenes, which didn’t always seem to flow into each other. This maybe a deliberate play on the assessment that cats are notoriously individual and solitary creatures, or it may be that you need to read the story or see the show several times before the story clicks into place. A tip - the programme synopsis is really useful for understanding the story, so it is worth getting if only to understand the plot.
The general synopsis is that once a year the cats get together at a Jellicle Ball where one of them gets chosen by Old Deuteronomy to become a Jellicle Cat for the year. Kind of like a feline version of X-factor or Big Brother perhaps. There were fireworks, there were more dance routines, and the way the cats mingled in the audience kept us engaged, even during the weaker numbers. Grizabella was this year’s chosen one, and is sent up to the ‘Heaviside Layer’ in a scene reminiscent of the Ascendance, if the Ascendance had taken place in a spaceship with a giant furry feline Grim Reaper (aka Old Deuteronomy) helping you on your way. Hopefully, this will make sense when you see it…
Anyway, highlights were the songs ‘Macavity’ – which many of us will remember from school and is still a poetic treat to hear – and the magical ‘Mr Mistoffelees’. The most memorable character was The Rum Tum Tugger, played with much feline flair, funk and a lot of wildcattery by the fabulous Oliver Savile, and also Paul F Monaghan who played Bustopher Jones as a cross between a Pavarotti and Paul Potts-type larger than life cat.
If you want to look up anything from the musical before deciding whether to go, it has to be ‘Memory’ and ‘Mister Mistoffelees’. The outstanding performance – sung even more emotionally during the finale - was the beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking ‘Memory’, sung by the magnificent Sophia Ragavelas as Grizabella. And yes, even us hardened reviewers were watering from the eyes (although I’m sure it was just smoke from the earlier fireworks...)