Cats – London Palladium

Kerry Ellis (Grizabella) 2 in Cats at the London Palladium

Kerry Ellis in Cats at the London Palladium. Picture: Alessandro Pinna

Cats is booking at the London Palladium until 25 April 2015.

Star rating: 4 stars ****

While I appreciate the position that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats – famously inspired by T.S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – holds in musical theatre history (the originality of its concept and the special place it has in many a theatregoer’s heart), I have to confess the show is not a favourite of mine.

I often struggle to engage with a piece that is a collection of character sketches, however entertaining and wonderfully choreographed they may be, and the thin storyline tying them together: i.e. it’s the evening of the annual Jellicle Ball during which one cat is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be born again.

Thanks to the brief stay of I Can’t Sing! at the London Palladium, Cats itself is now enjoying a new lease of life, 12 years after its incredible 21-year run at the New London Theatre, but with the same creative team onboard: director Trevor Nunn, associate director and choreographer Gillian Lynne, designer John Napier and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

For Lloyd Webber fans, it is perhaps an unexpected opportunity to revisit the musical, but there will be plenty of new converts – some of the younger members of the audience appeared transfixed (and the children’s area, complete with face-painting, doesn’t do any harm either).

The Palladium doesn’t offer the immersive environment of the New London’s in-the-round space and revolving stage, but set designer John Napier still draws the audience in with a sprawling junkyard set that spills onto the sides of the proscenium arch and boxes.

This environment, overseen by the moon and stars, is complemented by the work of Trevor Nunn who takes any opportunity to bring cast members into the aisles to interact with the audience, while in the process not interrupting the seamless flow of the action.

There are certain sections of the evening that ultimately leave me cold – ‘The Aweful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles’ being one – but that is by no means the fault of the hardworking, wonderfully talented, high-energy cast.

The reason for press to be invited on this occasion was the casting of popular and experienced West End actress Kerry Ellis as fading glamour puss cat Grizabella (replacing Nicole Scherzinger). One forgets that Grizabella is a relatively small role, if a vital one, yet in trademark fashion Ellis has the stage presence and acting knowhow to make her interpretation memorable and moving.

Without the additional X Factor-like persona to distract an audience, Ellis’ performance is all about the storytelling. Her character’s anguish, anger, desperation, vulnerability and loneliness are all present – sometimes in a gesture, mostly in song.

I recall the first time I really ‘got’ Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ was when I heard Judi Dench’s rendition in the National Theatre production of A Little Night Music. It is the same with Ellis’ version of ‘Memory’.

Ellis is of course surrounded by an excellent ensemble of triple threat artists, so impressive as a whole when bringing Gillian Lynne’s groundbreaking and distinctive choreography to life with precision and dynamism. It’s also worth noting the major contribution from associate choreographer Chrissie Cartwright, as well as the work of Bill Deamer in the Gumbie Cat tap number.

Individually, too, there are some standout performances, not least Ross Finnie as the railway cat Skimbleshanks, Charlene Ford (Bombalurina) and Zizi Strallen (Demeter) in ‘Macavity’, Dawn Williams and Benjamin Yates giving us a slice of vaudeville for ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer’, Joseph Poulton almost stopping the show with his charisma and athleticism as Mr. Mistoffelees and Barry Haywood, stepping in as Asparagus the theatre cat (accompanied by the engaging Clare Rickard as Jellylorum), offering such tenderness as he recalls his time treading the boards.

The decision to turn Rum Tum Tugger’s number into a street dance-and-rap number feels more like Lloyd Webber attempting to ‘get down with the kids’, but Antoine Murray-Straughan just about pulls the new number off and is great during the Mr. Mistoffelees sequence too.

As a musical, Cats is never likely to make my Top Ten, but as an innovative theatrical experience, it still has the power to move and entertain. Years after it first broke new ground, it still manages to have a contemporary edge. For any creative team behind a show, that’s quite a achievement.

Lisa Martland

Readers may also be interested in:

Interview – Kerry Ellis prepares to play Grizabella in Cats at the London Palladium

News – First look at Kerry Ellis as Grizabella in Cats

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