Purrfect theatre magic

Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy

Sophia Ragavelas as Grizabella and Nicholas Pound as Old Deuteronomy_Picture: Paul Coltas

Cats

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

ON the face of it a slim children’s book of just 15 short poems about cats is hardly the stuff of award winning musicals.

Yet from such unpromising material Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a piece of theatrical magic. It breaks all the rules.

For a start there are no humans, just a group of cats inhabiting a rubbish dump, there is no real dialogue and no narrative to speak of while the whole show is an extended, feline dance, slinking and stretching across the stage.

The magic worked though and Cats, which opened in 1981, ran for 21 years in the West End and 18 years on Broadway.

T S Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was a favourite book of the young Lloyd Webber and became the inspiration for the musical although the most famous song of the show, Memory, which rapidly became a standard, had nothing to do with cats or Old Possum but had its origins in another Elliot poem, an early dreamwork, Rhapsody on a Windy Night, said to be about the slightly sinister streets of midnight Paris.

Not that that matters with such a wonderful song and Sophia Ragavelas as the fading glamour puss, Grizabella wrings out every last purr of emotion in a performance that tingles the spine.

We join the cats of the Jellicle tribe on the night of the Jellicle Ball when one cat will be reborn into a new life, selected by the mystical elder of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy, played with a splendid baritone by Nicholas Pound.

Narrated by Munkustrap, played by Callum Train we are introduced to Gus, played by Paul F Monaghan, an old and shabby gentile tom these days, a former Thespian who once strutted the stages as a star of the West End.

Monaghan also gave us Bustopher Jones, a real 25 pounder, in tux and spats, who frequents the clubs of St James’s and Growltiger, a pirate part once played by Gus in his younger days.The railway cat

We meet the amusing cat burglars Mungojerrie (Barnaby Thompson) and Rumpleteazer (Dawn Williams) who end their dance with a spectacular double windmill across the stage and warm and friendly Skimbleshanks (Ross Finnie) the railway cat who is so important that the night train to Glasgow cannot leave if he is not on board.

Less energetic is Jennyanydots (Francesca Whiffin), a large, comfortable tabby, why sits and lies around all day – familiar to cat owners everywhere.

Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat Photo Alessandro Pinna

For flash and flamboyant we have the Rum Tum Tugger, with a lion’s mane and permanent swagger played by Italian musical theatre star Filippo Strocchi, while we get sinister in the form of Macavity (Cameron Ball) who kidnaps Old Deuteronomy and then tries to impersonate him before a fight with Munkustrap. As the other cats gang upon him Macavity fuses all the lights and vanishes.

That brings in ballet dancer Joseph Poulton as Mr Mistoffelees, with his years of ballet training showing in his conjuring turn when we have a succession of fouettés en tournant, Balletic spins on one leg, 24 of them so I am told. His is the most technically demanding and spectacular dance solo in the show but he is brought in not just for his dancing but also his magic, restoring the lights and bringing back Old Deuteronomy.

There is fabulous feline support from the ensemble, or perhaps we should say clowder with the likes of Hannah Kenna Thomas as fluffy white Victoria and Clare Rickard as the even fluffier Griddlebone, Growltiger’s lover in Growtiger’s Last Stand. She also provides us with Jellylorum, who tells us the sad tale of the decline of the great Gus, the theatre cat.

The production benefits from glorious cat costumes and an ingenious rubbish dump set from John Napier which spreads, as rubbish tends to do, into the auditorium, with old cookers and cars providing hideaways among the tyres and brass bedsteads.

The dramatic lighting, designed by David Hersey, also extends into the auditorium with strings of lights stretched across the roof, in fact everything extends into the auditorium with the fourth wall being removed and cats regularly slinking along the aisles and purring among the punters.

Music comes from an excellent eight piece orchestra under musical director Anthony Gabriele while the original direction from Trevor Nunn and stunning choreography from Gillian Lynne turn a crazy idea into an enchanted evening that can be enjoyed by all the family. If you haven’t seen it then this is your chance to see what the puss, sorry, fuss is about.  To 27-09-14

Roger Clarke

10-09-14 

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