As it’s my 200th consecutive day of viewing/reviewing I thought I should go for one of the biggest shows ever, and when it comes to big shows there’s numerically probably not much that can beat Cats. The show’s official website states:
“One of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history, received its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981 where it played for 21 record-breaking years and almost 9,000 performances….. winner of the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical….. in 1983 the Broadway production became the recipient of seven Tony awards and ran for 18 years….. Presented in over 30 countries…. translated into 15 languages….. seen by more than 73 million people worldwide”
To clarify, this review is not of the (by all accounts disastrous) recent film version which opened to snorts of derision. It is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s officially sanctioned video recording as performed in 1998 and featuring the original costumes, design and choreography and even some of the cast. Elaine Paige headlines as Grizabella and Ken Page (from the Broadway original cast) is Old Deuteronomy but really they don’t have a huge amount to do. Paige slinks across the stage a couple of times and, of course, belts out the central number “Memory”; Page merely has to look benign most of the time although he does get to do slightly more singing. But then the show was never designed as a star vehicle. Rather it was intended as an ensemble piece and most of the energy comes from an exuberant feline oriented troupe which leap, roll and cavort around the stage in Gillian Lynne’s celebrated choreography.
It is notable that although there is a composer – Andrew Lloyd Webber and a lyricist – T.S. Eliot, of all people, there is no credit for the book. That is largely because there isn’t one as narrative has almost been dispensed with. The rudimentary outline is that the cats have come together for the once a year Jellicle Ball at the culmination of which one moggy is selected to go up to the Heaviside Layer (cat heaven) and be reborn but this is all but forgotten as the show becomes more of a song cycle featuring Eliot’s gallery of eccentric felines with more than eccentric names. The musical numbers are constructed to reflect the cats’ personalities; thus we have the rock song of the Rum Tum Tugger (John Partridge on good form), the tap dance routine of Jenny Anydots, the music hall swagger of Bustopher Jones and the balletic magic of Mr Mistoffelees (the original was Wayne Sleep) and so on. There’s a rather strange cameo from John Mills (no less) playing the frail Gus The Theatre Cat who reminisces about the parts he played on stage. While it’s interesting to see him on stage he does seem severely underused.
The score remains memorable though that may be more to do with repetition over the decades than any immediate sense of wonder it may cause. It still seems ironic that THE big number, “Memory” has been adapted from one of Eliot’s more substantial poems (“Rhapsody On A Windy Night”) rather than the more light verse which dominates throughout but it is undoubtedly one of Lloyd Webber’s most haunting tunes. Trevor Nunn’s direction is a busy affair though this does help to detract from the lack of an engaging through narrative; this video version uses a few “cheats” to enhance the visuals but by and large this is as faithful a recreation of the original experience as I recall seeing back in 1981. At the time one of the big talking points was John Napier’s set. This is still a thing of wonder – everything is 3.5 times bigger than in real life to reflect a cat’s perspective – and the individualisation of the various characters’ costumes and makeup show that real care and attention has been paid.
I had thought to mark my “anniversary review” with something of deep significance and import but in the end frivolity won out and watching the show was an undemanding and warming way to spend a murky afternoon (especially as my birthday plans had fallen through). About one minute into the show my own cat decided that a warm lap was in order and he remained throughout occasionally flicking an eye open when a meow or hiss permeated his oblivion. An obvious seal of approval from one who knows!
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