Cats – London Palladium

Beverley Knight (Grizabella) in Cats, photo Alessandro Pinna

Beverley Knight in Cats at the London Palladium. Picture: Alessandro Pinna

Cats continues at the London Palladium until 2 January 2016.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

There are some long-running West End shows whose continuing popularity tends to generate dismissive sniffs amongst Theatreland’s more prolific theatregoers. These tend to be the shows that do not have the narrative draw of a highly structured book, or the intellectual heft of a carefully crafted Sondheim lyric. Thriller Live, the perennial Michael Jackson tribute show in permanent residency at the Lyric, is one such production; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which returns to the London Palladium this week, is surely another.

And it’s true that there is no narrative to speak of – a story of old cats petitioning to be allowed to be reincarnated into a new set of nine lives isn’t so much woven into the fabric of the play, but spattered like flecks of paint onto its surface. But to look for such things denies what this perpetually popular production actually is – a superb dance show structured around a song cycle based on TS Eliot’s poetry, with the occasional great song.

Once you look at it from that perspective, other criticisms tend to fade. Yes, the costumes, all leotards and leg warmers, are ridiculously 1980s, but they do allow the athleticism of the dancers to shine through. Choreographic magpie Gillian Lynne appropriates styles and techniques from all eras of dance, from the most classic of ballets through Vaudevillian acrobatics (especially in ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer’) and to the brassy, Fosse-inspired stylings of ‘Macavity’.

And through it all, the combination of Lynne’s eye for movement detail and John Napier’s designs – still both strikingly original and engaging – makes for a feline world in which one can allow oneself to believe a cat can dance.

Where the show does fall down slightly is its newest sequence, with the independently minded Rum Tum Tugger reinterpreted as a dreadlocked street dancer. The dance ensemble’s half-spoken, half-sung introduction is swamped in the sound mix, the fast-paced wordplay getting lost. Marcquelle Ward’s warmth and enjoyment in the role is infectious, but his solo moves feel disjointed from the rest of the show’s choreography in ways that other set pieces do not, to the detriment of both performer and audience enjoyment. The character and performer fare far better when the Tugger swaggers through the full scale ’Jellicle Ball’ later in Act I, while his Act II transition into an MC really fits the character’s reworked interpretation and finally allows its place in the ensemble to be fully earned.

Of the other solo performances, Mark John Richardson’s Mistoffelees takes best advantage of the spotlight afforded to him to showcase some of the show’s best dance moves, while Paul F Monaghan makes light work of Cats’most demanding character work, being called upon to play three very different feline roles – corpulent gourmand Bustopher Jones, battered old theatre cat Gus and the devilishly operatic Growltiger.

But it is the role of Grizabella which attracts the most attention. The Palladium’s first revival featured Nicole Scherzinger, and then Kerry Ellis, in the role of the faded glamour puss who has been rejected by cat society.

Beverley Knight, the soul singer who has rightly won warm praise for her two previous West End outings in The Bodyguard and Memphis, has arguably played safe previously, playing singers in both shows. Here, her acting performance requires her to be more of a different character. In movement terms, she is maybe a little too stiff and emphatic in her movements to fit in to even this most unrealistic of productions, but her vocal performance cannot be faulted. Her twin renditions of ‘Memory’ which provide the climax to each act are very much sung in Knight’s own distinctive style, and all the better for that, the tremulous powerhouse of her vocals rightly bringing the house down.

Scott Matthewman

Book Tickets for Cats: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/cats

Readers may also be interested in:

Cats – Blackpool Opera House – Review

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