There is something undeniably exhilarating about entering the vast chasm that is the auditorium of the London Palladium to encounter John Napier’s extraordinary rubbish tip set, now augmented with extra detritus and paraphernalia, for the 2014 revival of Cats. It’s a wonderful set, full of promise and mischief, and it effortlessly converts the Palladium into the mysterious, magical and silly world that the titular cats inhabit.
This revival is the first in quite some time to reassemble most of the original creatives. This is not just a gimmick, because there is a deal of re-invention and re-imagining here. Lord Lloyd-Webber provides new musical numbers; lyrics are tinkered with and Sir Trevor Nunn restages, and in the case of the new material, stages the work and Dame Gillian Lynne brings the dancing up to date, finessing here, restyling there. The love, care and belief these artists have in their work is palpable.
But the very best aspect of this production is the power, energy and sheer musicality Graham Hurman brings to the score. The orchestra is sizzling, sparking musical energy through every bar of Lloyd-Webber’s rich and diverse score. Hurman’s control of the pulse of the music is complete: he is unafraid of the pianissimo sections, undaunted by the new material and accomplished at setting and maintaining accurate and appropriate tempi for the big dance sequences. Despite the passage of more than 30 years, the score is vividly potent and thrilling.
Dame Gillian has been hard at work too and it shows. There is discipline, sensuality, a real sense of tribal connection and acrobatic excellence in the dancing here; it all feels fresh, precise and vigorous. The big set pieces – the Opening, The Old Gumbie Cat, The Jellicle Ball, Skimbleshanks – are quite mesmerising. The dancing cats give it their all. And here, that is a lot.
The new material achieves varying degrees of success. Rum Tum Tugger has been re-conceived as “a thoroughly bad boy of now” (Sir Trevor’s words). This means baggy trousers, trainers, tattoos, hat and chains – a tough cat with street cred. While musically, the song is interesting, and the chorus parts work surprisingly well, both ensemble and Tugger himself struggle with the diction. This will likely improve over time. But I am unconvinced that this version is better than the original.
On the other hand, Growltiger’s Last Stand has also been regenerated. Gone is the execrable Billy McCaw and the delicious Italian Aria send-up (either formed part of this sequence depending upon where in the world you saw Cats). Instead, the section is shortened quite considerably and to quite good effect, particularly the opening where Growltiger and his men, in a kind of Pussy homage to Oliver, establish the kind of tough guy types they are. This was engaging and funny in new ways and the new tune works very well with the (mostly anyway) old words. However, towards the end of the song, when the Siamese hordes invade, diction was very poor and that section needs tightening.
The third major musical change occurs in Mr Mistoffelees, where the tune is changed to accommodate the rap and style of the new Tugger. This is a serious, silly mistake: taking one of the best, most well-known tunes and smashing it against the wall. Composer misjudgement off the Richter scale.
But it is not the only Composer misjudgement here. Casting Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella takes the prize. Make no mistake – she cannot act. Her “performance” has no grace, no subtlety, no inner warmth. It is agonising to watch. At a fundamental level, and this is something with which the creatives have shamefully colluded, her Grizabella is still the Glamour Cat: she has the best, most stylish costume; she is not rags and shame – she is torn Prada and heeled boots with superb legs. If you were one of the Cats ensemble who muse as to “who would ever suppose that” Scherzinger’s Grizabella was once “the Glamour Cat” then not only were you blind when you were born, you still are. She IS the glamour cat – head and shoulders above anyone else. Which makes a mockery of her entire part in the narrative.
There might be something to say for this if her singing was phenomenal, if no one else had ever found the glory in the song Memory that she does. But, no. That’s not it either. The climax of Memory, the electric phrase “Touch me”, works not because of Scherzinger’s technique or skill but because Greg Pink’s sound design team pump up the volume and the reverberation to Krakatoa levels. The auditorium is flushed with a tsunami of sound, in true X Factor style, any sense of drama or character floating away with it. It is horrific – but The Pussycat Dolls fans in the audience lapped it up. So to speak.
Still, and this is really the extraordinarily remarkable thing about this production, Grizabella just doesn’t matter. Most of the rest of the cast are so good, so engaging, so utterly joyful that one forgets the Scherzinger cat.
Callum Train is a tall, lithe and commanding Munkustrap and he has a pleasant voice which he uses to precise effect. Benjamin Yates is really terrific as Mungojerrie, all charm and style, and he is matched perfectly by the frisky joy that is Dawn Williams’ Rumpleteazer. Adam Salter goes all out in the acrobatic stakes as Bill Bailey and creates the perfect portrait of a real cat, whether in movement or repose.
Zizi Strallen makes a sensational Demeter; she sings beautifully and dances with appropriate, sexy finesse. As Bombalurina, Charlene Ford is absolutely perfect, excellent at every part of her role and constantly on the alert. Their duet in Act Two, Macavity, is a true highlight. Laurie Scarth brought happy enthusiasm and boundless skill to Jennyanydots and her solo in Act One was another real highlight.
Paul F Monaghan is superb as Bustopher Jones, precisely essaying the sense of the St James’ Street cat with a penchant for the good life, and then turns in a poignant and beautifully judged Gus, the theatre cat. Everything about each performance was detailed, measured, and brimming with pleasure. For a hat trick, his Growltiger too was excellent, unexpectedly rough and tomcatty. He had marvellous support from Clare Rickard as kind and caring Jellyorum and raunchy seductress Griddlebone.
Skimbleshanks is a demanding role and Ross Finnie delivered the goods stylishly and with considerable aplomb. His diction was excellent, as was his sense of distilled humour and tick-tock precision. Natasha Mould sang Jemima very well indeed and brought a secure, effervescent charm to everything she did. Joseph Poulton twirled and swirled to truly hypnotic effect in the tour de force that is Mr Mistoffelees in Act Two.
There was especially good work from Adam Lake (Alonzo), Joel Morris (Carbucketty), Benjamin Mundy (Coricopat), Cameron Ball (Admetus and Macavity), Stevie Hutchinson (Pouncival) Kathryn Barnes (Tantoumile) and Hannah Kenna Thomas (White Cat). It really is marvellous to see the very tall male cats dancing in unison, the wonderful pairs working intricately together and the overall commitment and ease these performers all bring to the production.
It’s not all that good. Nicholas Pound is lamentably dull as Old Deuteronomy. He does not imbue the character with sufficient dignity or wonder; none of the magic inherent in the part attaches. And if he must sit on the Tyre during interval then he really should keep in character – anything else is unforgiveable. Pound’s singing is not as good as it needs to be, especially when the bar is here set by Monaghan and Train and the ghost of Brian Blessed (not that he is dead yet) still can be felt, even in the Palladium.
Antoine Murray-Straughan has the hardest task of all: to deliver the goods on the reincarnated Rum Tum Tugger. Mostly, he is incomprehensible, which is a significant drawback given he has new lyrics and tunes to deliver. Murray-Straughan has a certain charm, but it seems like the concept for the character has not been properly thought through and the result is too tentative, too graceless. Perhaps it will refine and improve over time.
To be scrupulously fair to him though, it is difficult to believe that the Sound team are on top of the demands of the show quite yet. The balance between singer and orchestra is not always where it should be – and Murray-Straughan’s new material was particularly affected by this issue.
Aficionados will notice change elsewhere too – The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles bolts along at a new, cracking pace; Macavity’s appearance in Act Two has been refashioned as has Grizabella’s journey to the Heavyside Layer.
But while there are issues with casting in some key roles, the overall effect of the production is as jubilant and teeming with energy as ever. This revival is an assault on the visual and aural senses which leaves an intoxicating afterglow. At its heart is deft, exuberant choreography, some wonderful tunes and Graham Hurman’s splendid vision for the music.