New Wimbledon Theatre (UK Tour)
7 November 2016
Apparently, the oldest cat ever to be recorded lived to be 38 years old, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline clan is not far behind, as they grace the stage once again in the UK and International tour of ‘Cats’, 35 years after its premier at the New London Theatre. Although familiar with the show, this was my first time attending the Jellicle Ball but, with its heart fluttering moments and amongst the undoubted impressive grandeur, I was left reeling with confusion.
In his ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, T S Eliot writes: “The Jellicle moon is shining bright, Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball”, and it is this night that sets our scene, where wise Old Deuteronomy will choose but one cat to be reborn to live a new life. Out from John Napier’s impressive scrapyard set crawl the felines, some creeping from underneath scattered litter, others darting through the auditorium. There is Jennyanydots – the lazy cat, the mischievous and playful duo – Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and Gus – the theatre cat; there is Rum Tum Tugger, Jemima and Bustopher Jones, all hoping to be blessed with the new Jellicle life. Particularly impressive (possibly because I venture out most days with one wonky eyebrow, let alone a set of detailed whiskers) is Napier’s intricate make-up design, enhancing each of the cats’ unique and identifiable personalities, only strengthened by the actors’ subtle animalistic nose twitches and fur ruffles. But, it is Grizabella,- the fallen glamour cat, initially rejected by the cat clowder, who is chosen by Old Deuteronomy to go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn, after singing of her ‘Memory’ and of the days when her life was beautiful. It has to be said: Marianne Benedict as Grizabella gives the best rendition of the infamous show tune that I have ever heard; with the climactic crescendo, her pipes burst with such raw integrity and the uninterrupted audience applause (which will undoubtedly be repeated at each performance) is whole-heartedly deserved.
There have been some changes made to the show and Rum Tum Tugger, the once flirtatious and bumptious cat, is now a breakdancing street cat with a gold chain and a hip hop soundtrack, which is garishly out of sync with the rest of the show. With the popularity of ‘In the Heights’ and the success of ‘Hamilton’ (for which London impatiently awaits), rap music is very much alive in theatre but this attempt at modernising the character doesn’t work for me.
‘Cats’ is primarily a dance sequence which is refreshing amongst the many sung-through musicals. The moggies tell their story and they all celebrate each other through ballet and acrobatics, which pulsate with vivacious spirit and zeal. Gillian Lynne’s choreography is impressively slick and sharp, performed by a cast with enviable stamina. If I had to take on the role of Old Deuteronomy and choose one cat to curl up at my feet, it would be Lee Greenaway’s Skimbleshanks – the railway cat. I was drawn to his personality and it is one of my favourite numbers in the score.
I expected to be left with a staggering sense of utopia: this is a musical about redemption and one which encourages us to celebrate ourselves as individuals. It is visually stimulating and has a cast which performs with desirable vigour. It is a clean, slick, intelligent piece. However, in places, the sequences are rather long and my mind began to wander. Some of the cats stories I just was not interested in, perhaps because I was not given the freedom to draw my own conclusions of them as characters: I’m told I should be scared of Macavity and that I should love Old Deuteronomy, instead of being allowed to feel it at my own will. For those who have never seen a piece of live theatre, it is a great first, and it was rather magical to hear the whispers of the younger members of the audience as the cats roamed amongst them. But, I am caught in a moment of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ As a critic, am I really supposed to ignore the great things about this show and write negatively, just because it didn’t stir anything within me? I think that would be unjust, and would not allow me to show my deserving appreciation for this piece. Give me Lloyd-Webber’s masked ghost and his angel of music and see me melt into a puddle, but ‘Cats’ is just not my cup of tea.
Anyway, I’ve always been more of a canine girl.