A/V Room









Cats revival is purr-fect for a new generation of theatre-goers

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Among the guests was Eliot’s widow, Valerie, who gave Lloyd Webber letters, unpublished poems and other ephemera relating to 'Old Possum'.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 characters.

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 Paige.

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 show closed.

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 dancing.

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 Sloane Ranger.

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 Elaine Paige.

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 1QG.
Fri, November 19 - Sat, December 4, 2004.
Evenings: 7.30pm / Matinees: Thurs & Sat 2.30pm.
Box Office: 0870 060 6646.

# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z