A purrfectly splendid show

Top Cats: Richard Astbury as Coricopat and Lizzi Franklin as Tantomile. Pictures: Alessandro Pinna

Cats

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

A SLIM volume of 15 whimsical poems for children about cats would hardly strike you as the stuff of record breaking, multi-award winning, musicals but then you are not Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In his hands, or rather in his music, the whimsy of the word is turned into the whimsy of the theatre in this mesmerising production.

The design by John Napier sets the world of T S Eliot's eccentric and feral felines from Old Possum's Book of  Practical Cats in a rubbish dump with Old Deuteronomy, the ancient patriarch of the Jellicle tribe of street cats, played by Nicholas Pound, holding court from what appears to be a tractor tyre while our narrator Munkustrap (Ben Palmer) guides us through the whiskery world.

Amid the discarded cookers and rubbish the cast of 28 ‘cats' realising they are being watched by humans explain to us

“The naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

 It isn't just one of you holiday games”

We learn cats have three names, of The Old Gumbie Cat, Jennyanydots (Alice Redmond),  who ‘sits and sits and sits and sits' and of The Rum Tum Tugger (Oliver Saville) who is a Curious Cat'; of Bustipher Jones, The Cat about Town (Paul F Monaghan) a real fat cat, ‘a 25 pounder' and Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (Barnaby Thompson and Katie Warsop) – a very notorious couple of cats.

There is The Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles and we are also introduced to Grizabella, the Glamour Cat (Joanna Ampil).

Grizabella is the odd one out. It was a cat Elliot apparently had intended to include in Old Possum poems but decided it was too sad for children but a fragment of the intended poem was given to Lloyd Webber by Eliot's widow, Valerie.

So, from too sad for children Grizabella became a main character in the production and the eight lines of the fragment convinced Lloyd Webber of the potential for a musical.

The cat, discarded as too sad, is rescued and her sadness displayed to the whole world to see before she becomes the chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn with a new Jellicle life.

Paul F Monaghan as Bustipher Jones, the fat Cat about Town

Young and beautiful she had left the tribe to see the world for herself, now she is a shabby, old, run down cat, her youth and beauty long gone, who just wants to be accepted in the tribe again.

All together now: “Ahhhhh”.

He signature song, Memory, has become one of the most emotive and memorable standards of all time, recorded by more than 150 artists but the words are not Eliot's. They are by the original director, Trevor Nunn but are based on another Eliot poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night.

Amil's singing of this beautiful song, particularly in the second act, steals the show but there are other highlights such as Paul F Monaghan's Asparagus, Gus, The Theatre Cat, the old thespian of the Jellicle world living on past stories and glories.

Then there is the magical Mr Mistoffelees, otherwise known as Quaxo played by ballet dancer Joseph Poulton who manages a breathtaking succession of fouettés en tournant, a static ballet 360 degree turn. I didn't count them but there were a lot in his signature dance, the most difficult and complex of the show.

There is The Mystery Cat, Macavity, (Cameron Ball), who is never around when the proverbial hits the fan and a whole world; Skimbleshanks (Ross Finnie) and Gus in a flash becomes Growltiger in his last stand in his own adventure before returning to the life of a cat who used to be somebody.

There is one set and a big cast who, at times, scatter through the audience breaking theatrical convention. The original choreography was by Gillian Lynne and the tour choreographer, Chrissie Cartwright, ensures that even with every cat prowling, slinking or stretching on stage, it always looks natural and controlled.

Joanna Ampil as Grizabella, the faded glamour cat

As a nation we have a love affair with cats and probably more than half the audience have had cats as pets at some time or another so can recognise the stretches, claw sharpening, lithe, lazy movement of cats. The excellent cast might be human but they become so convincing in their wonderful costumes you half expect them to rub against your leg and purr.

Meanwhile electronics have produced a new era of magic in the theatre particularly in lighting  and Cats sees strings of bulbs festooning the auditorium stretching from the stage to the gods with bulbs that change patterns and colours to envelop the audience within the story

There was also some very clever lighting effects from David Hersey's design on stage although one of the most effective and impressive lighting illusions was also the simplest.

When Rum Tum Tugger tells the cats they should summon Mr Mistooffelees after Macavatity has captured Old Deuteronomy and fused the lights, he is illuminated by a hand held lamp, little more than a giant torch, to throw a huge shadow on the back wall.

The show was the longest running ever on Broadway until it was overtaken by another Lloyd Webber creation, Phantom. It held the record for a musical in the West End until overtaken by Les Miserables and it is easy to see why . . . now.

There is no narrative to follow, no real goodies or baddies, no characters to identify with or to cheer or boo, just a collection of cats with stories to tell and Eliot's charming poems set to music.

If it had been anyone by Lloyd Webber who had come up with the idea it would have been strangled at birth  - and w a wonderful and very original, charming musical would never have seen the light of day  One might say it would have been lost in The Wasteland. To 30-03-13.

Roger Clarke

 

Meanwhile foraging among the bin bags . . .

****

WHO else but Andrew Lloyd Webber could create a smash hit musical about cats and stage it on a rubbish tip?

Sounds like a recipe for a cat-astrophe, but for the next two weeks Black Country audiences will see just why it became one of the longest running shows in the West End and has thrilled people in over 300 cities in 26 countries.

Based on T.S.Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, it tells the story of one night in the year when all Jellicle cats meet at the Jellicle Ball where wise Old Deuteronomy, impressively played by Nicholas Pound, must announce who goes up to the heaviside layer and be reborn into a whole new life.

And that is when Joanna Ampil, playing the veteran Grizabella sings the show-stopper, Memory, in an emotion-packed performance, before gliding up to the sky.

But before then a remarkable collection of dancers and singers in stunning feline costumes entertain with Chrissie Cartwright's beautiful choreography. There are so many character cats - huge Bustopher Jones (Paul F. Monaghan) in his signature white spats, the villainous Macavity (Cameron Ball), Rum Tum Tugger (Oliver Savile), Mungojerrie (Barnaby Thompson) and Rumpleteazer (Katie Warsop).

A magical contribution, too, from Joseph Poulton as Mr Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat with special powers. The cast climb over, through and round a clever junkyard set including old tyres, drains, tubes, bottles and railings. It's purr-fect fun. To 30—03-13

Paul Marston 

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