Review by David Munro
ORIGINALLY conceived as a companion piece to Tell Me On A
Sunday the embryonic Cats – ten poems
from T. S, Eliot’s 'Old Possums Book of Practical Cats',
set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber – was premiered at his
Sydmonton Festival in 1980.
Among the guests was Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who gave
Lloyd Webber letters, unpublished poems and other ephemera relating
to 'Old Possum'.
Lloyd Webber immediately realised that rather than a song cycle,
he now had the basis of a musical and so Cats, as now
playing at Wimbledon Theatre, was conceived
It had a long gestation; Harold Prince, who had just directed
Evita, refused to have anything to do with it and so
Trevor Nunn was approached and agreed to direct it.
He also, incidentally, supplied the lyrics for Memory
by raiding other Eliot poems.
Cameron Macintosh, with whom Lloyd Webber had initially discussed
the double-bill of Cats and Tell Me On a Sunday,
agreed to co-produce with Webber’s production company –
The Really Useful Group; John Napier agreed to design the sets
and Gillian Lynne undertook the choreography.
The format of the show was largely dictated by its original theatre
– The New London which was capable of accommodating shows
'in the round'.
This enabled the production team to create a large fixed set
of a rubbish dump in the centre of the auditorium around which
the cast (and, at times, the stalls) revolved. and gave the show
the impression that the cats were free-roaming if somewhat eccentric
Taking the cue from an Eliot remark in one of his letters that
he felt his book of poems should end with one on dance, the accent
of the show was on the choreography which supported the poems.
A wisp of a story was inserted about the selection of a cat
for rebirth but it is fundamentally an evening of songs accompanied
by almost non-stop energetic and feline-simulating dancing.
The songs, apart from Memory, which is not an Eliot
original, have never had a separate life of their own.
A single by Paul Nicholas (who later created the role of Rum
Tum Tugger), released in 1980, failed to make the charts and this,
added to the originality of the ideas of a musical based on cats,
caused the producers to find difficulty in raising the necessary
finance and, at one time, shares in the show were being offered
for as little as £500.
The production received a setback when Judi Dench injured herself
and the opening had to be postponed and she was replaced by Elaine
However, eventually it all came together and the show opened
on May 11, 1981, only to fall victim to a bomb hoaxer on the opening
night when the audience were asked to leave the theatre as the
The rest is, however, history and the show with the advertising
and very prescient logo 'Now and Forever' proceeded to run and
run and run, ending at the turn of the century.
It was equally successful throughout the world and spawned polyglot
cast albums which are a must for esoterically minded aficionados
of theatrical curious to listen to a Japanese translation of Eliot’s
very precise and word playing poems gives one a very strange view
of why the musical is successful.
The answer is, I suppose, that by now the words, once the inspiration
for the music, have become sublimated and to a large extent lost
to the tunes themselves which, while filling Lloyd Webber’s
coffers, must cause him a few moments of doubt as to the fundamental
integrity of his multi-national success.
The touring production now to be
seen at the New Wimbledon Theatre is performed behind a conventional
Proscenium arch, which removes a lot of the intimacy and immediacy
of the original production.
One has however to judge it as it is now and whether, in its
present format, it succeeds.
Cats still roam the auditorium during the performance and the
stage has rubbish spilling over into the front of the stalls.
The dancing, though, is now more compressed and routine-like,
yet it is still as vigorous and the performances are on the whole
as delightfully feline as originally intended.
It is, however, a subtly different Cats from the original
and the logo now reads, 'the memory continues', but for anyone
whose memory, like mine, doesn’t continue, it is a very
good show in its own right.
Most of the cast have individual solos or set pieces, although
they all join in the dancing and ensembles playing a variety of
characters as the poems require.
As Old Deuteronomy, the Ancient of the cats, James Paterson makes
a venerable father figure whose apparent age is belied by the
vigour of his voice.
As the debonair, cool cat Rum Tum Tugger, Stewart Ramsay struts
his stuff and makes a real character of the cat justifying the
applause he received on his subsequent appearances.
Gus the Theatre Cat was touchingly portrayed by Patrick Clancy
who efffectively doubled the part with Bustopher Jones, the bon
viveur club cat, a complete contrast in styles.
In the part of Mistoffolees, originated by Wayne Sleep, Guy-Paul
Roult de St Germain proved a sparkling successor with his spectacular
On the distaff side, Lucinda Collins was an enchanting Jennyanydots,
the Gumbie cat who drills the Cockroaches, and Emily Anderson
was a lithe and attractive white kitten, Victoria..
I was not so happy, though, with Chrissie Hammond’s Grizabella,
who far from being a distressed and dowdy cat, seemed very much
in control of herself and gave the impression that she was a slumming
Her gestures when she was singing made me feel she was in some
sort of physical discomfort, so when she ascended the heavenly
ladder at the end, it was as though she was seeking relief in
a heavenly loo in the sky rather than achieving her destiny. I
longed for the self-effacing yet powerful performance given by
This performance apart, it was a very well performed evening
and should delight a new generation of theatre-goers for a long
time to come, especially the children.
Those I saw in the auditorium were clearly entranced by the
show and it should therefore inspire and give them a benchmark
for the future against which to judge as to how good a musical
can be. A product of his poems that would have delighted Mr Eliot
I feel sure.
Cats based on poems by T. S. Elliott with music by Andrew
Lloyd Webber (additional material by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe).
Direction and choreography re-created from the original of Trevor
Nunn and Gillian Lynne by Chrissie Cartwright.
Scenic designer, Raymond Huessy; Lighting, Howard Eaton; Sound,
Simon Baker and Terry Jardine; Musical director, Peter Macarthy.
CAST: Alex Durrant; Grace Warner; Patrick Clancy; Philip Comley;
Natalie Edmunds; Lee Lomas; Leyla Pellegrini; Chrissie Hammond;
Karen Evans; Adelle Young; Lucinda Collins; David Ball; Andrew
Prosser; Nic Greenshields; James Paterson; Guiy-Paul Roult de
St Germain; Laura Brydon; Stuart Ramsay; Richard Peakman; Mathew
Gould; Kate Tydman; Emily Anderson; Barry Haywood; Matt Krzan;
Chevaun Marsh; Bonnie Parker; Jay Ramage; Sally Whitehead; Anthony
Whiteman; Stuart Winter.
Presented by David Ian for Clear Channel Entertainment.
New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway , Wimbledon, London, SW19
Fri, November 19 - Sat, December 4, 2004.
Evenings: 7.30pm / Matinees: Thurs & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6646.