cat head

Cats

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

LIKE a fine wine, Cats, is aging quite superbly, as fresh and lively today as it was when it first purred into the West End 35 years ago.

Not that anyone then could have predicted that a quirky musical based on a slim volume of T S Elliot’s whimsical poems about cats, with no story to speak of, would still be packing them in a generation later.

Common sense and logic tells you it is a daft idea and it shouldn’t work- but it does; why is still a mystery but it manages it quite splendidly, with a cast of almost 30 in skin tight cat costumes bringing Elliot’s poems to life on the rubbish dump that home to the Jellicle tribe of cats.

Here we meet the likes of Rum Tum Tigger, the rapping, breakdancing, cool cat played y’all by Marcquelle Ward, a change of character for old Rum Tum who started life as a bit of a rock god with Paul Nicholas in the role but has now become a streetwise rapper in one of a number of changes and revisions of the show.

The characters may have evolved by they are still there with Kevin Stephen Jones as the wise, ancient cat, Old Deuteronomy, the tribes catriarch, while Greg Castiglioni provides a trio of felines, the rather smart toff cat, Bustopher Jones, a 25 pounder and moggie to the gentry in St James, and later the rather sad Gus, the theatre cat whose best days are long behind him, but he can still spin a good yarn, enacting his time as Growltiger, the pirate he played in his youth, attacked by the Siamese.

His operatic aria with Griddlebone, sung by Celia Graham, is quite something.

There is the railway cat, Skimbleshanks, played by Lee Greenaway, the cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, played and danced by Joe Henry and Emily Langham, Mr Mistoffelees, the original conjuring cat danced balletically by Shiv Rabheru as well as the baddy of the piece Macavity, played by Javier Cid, who may have only been on stage for moments but made the audience jump by fusing all the stage lights with a huge flash and explosion.

With rap, opera and jazz why not tap dancing cockroaches? Which brings us to Jennyanydots, played by Lucinda Shaw, the old Gumbie cat, who sleeps all day and at night teaches mice and cockroaches to be productive which in this case involved filling the stage with tap.

And it was all pulled together by our MC (master of cats)mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer for the evening, Munkustrap, sung beautifully by Matt Krzan.

When it comes to singing though the honours go to Marianne Benedict as Grizabella, the faded glamour puss returning to a life she had left, craving affection or merely acceptance. I doubt anyone in Cats’ 35 year history has put as much welly into Memory. She was just magnificent.

Her unsteady, faded opening as she tried to sing the song as the shunned ex-celebrity had emotion but it was nothing to her quite superb performance of the show’s most famous song at the end.

Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie, the cat burglars

 She nailed it with the emotion grabbing the audience by the throat and leaving everything after it a bit of an anti-climax. She has a lovely, powerful, clear voice and this is one memory you won't forget in a hurry.

Incidentally, Memory, written by the original director, Trevor Nunn, is based on another Elliot poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, nothing to do with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats at all.

John Napier’s rubbish dump set design provides a clever backdrop to show off the athleticism of a largely young cast, who fill the stage – and auditorium - with an infectious and boundless enthusiasm, involving the audience from the off as cats prowl the aisles at regular intervals. They should also be commended for their singing and brilliant dancing. Some of the choral work is quite outstanding.

The technology which has given us smart phones more powerful that the computers which sent man to the moon has also done wonders for theatre craft with Howard Eaton’s lighting design taking full advantage of the high powered multi-coloured LED computer controlled spots available these days. Some of the dramatic lighting effects were quite breath-taking while the special effects have also moved on apace over the years.

Grizabella’s finale ascent to the Heaviside Layer is more spectacular than ever.

Sound, designed here by Greg Pink, has also benefitted from the digital age with multi-channel systems ensuring voices are heard clearly from anywhere on stage. The sound engineers also managed a good balance between singers and the excellent eight-piece orchestra under musical director Tim Davies.

This was a labour of love for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, setting one his favourite books of childhood to music, and his obvious affection for the characters has probably helped endear the show to record breaking audiences over a generation. Parents who saw it as children are now taking their own offspring and it must have done wonders for sales of Elliot's slim volume.

 Originally directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Gillian Lynne, Cats is still going strong and, with nine lives to go at, it will be with us for some time yet, evolving and reinventing itself as it goes. Catch it this time around if you can. To 04-06-16

Roger Clarke

30-05-16 

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