If you thought that, 34 years on from Andrew Lloyd Webber first road-testing it at the 1980 Sydmonton Festival, Cats would by now be a cauliflower-eared old moggie, you’d be mistaken.
It is still purring along like a skittish, playful kitten, thrillingly vibrant, dancing around full of the joys of spring.
Who would have thought that when the noble Lord started putting music to one of his favourite compilation of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot – not the most obvious subject matter for a worldwide hit –that it would still be being lapped up like a big bowl of double cream all this way down the line and enjoyed by upwards of 50 million people in 20-plus countries and ten languages.
The 1980s were the golden days of Lloyd Webber when he was on such a roll that had he written Variations on My Old Man’s a Dustman, his adoring public would have paid top-dollar to see it. These days Love Never Dies or Stephen Ward, decent though they were, played to half-empty theatres. How times and tastes change…
For sheer high-voltage energy and exuberance, the dancing in Cats is hard to beat and this young (mostly) and hugely talented touring cast works so hard and with such obvious enthusiasm that it fair makes your eyes water.
Joseph Poulton’s Mistoffelees soars higher than anybody (what a dancer he is!), Ben Palmer sings Monkustrap strongly and with obvious relish, Filippo Strocchi is a commanding Rum Tum Tugger, Paul F Monaghan (Bustopher Jones) and Nicholas Pound (Old Deuteronomy) provide some gentle humour in the older roles and the orchestra under MD Anthony Gabriele draws every ounce from Lloyd Webber’s music.
The three best-known songs, ‘Macavity’, ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ and ‘Memory’, all come near the end (although the last one also closes Act I), bringing the show to all-dancing, all-singing ensemble finale that sends everybody home humming and happy.
Once the opening bars of ‘Memory’ strike up, the singer is always on a hiding to nothing because it is a song so closely associated with Elaine Paige and Barbra Streisand, but to her great credit the experienced Joanna Ampil, as the fading glamour cat Grizabella, totally nails it.
The atmospheric rubbish-tip set, similar to John Napier’s original, is one that never needs changing and some brilliant lighting effects (Howard Eaton) add to the fun, while the responsibility for re-creating the original direction and choreography of Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne lies with Chrissie Cartwright.
I have to admit Cats is not my sort of musical (which is why I’d never seen it before and why I was curious to know what I had been missing all these years) – but there’s no denying its universal appeal.
Even the plaintive ‘Memory’, which many think is Lloyd Webber’s finest melody (I didn’t realise that original director Nunn wrote those haunting lyrics), fails to move me, but you only have to look at the dozens of youngsters paying rapt attention to every minute, every song, every dance, to understand why Cats – wholesome, frenetic and easy on the eye – has been such an enduring triumph.
When I dared to suggest to one ten-year-old in my row that it was really a load of old rubbish, she quickly put me in my place with: “It’s not rubbish, it’s Cats.”
Say no more!