Originally published on London Box Office
It was once the longest running musical in West End history, running for 21 years and nearly 9,000 performances. It originally sported a cast that included Bonnie Langford, Brian Blessed, Sarah Brightman, Wayne Sleep and of course Elaine Paige. It was the first musical I ever saw (I was 6 years old and was completely mesmerised). Now it’s back for a limited run in the only London theatre capable of staging such an iconic show and I was absolutely determined to catch it as soon as possible. I am of course talking about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical Cats. So along I went to the London Palladium, taking with me a friend who adores cats so much that she has cat-themed shoes. Yes, my friends are just that cool.
As we walked in and took our seats, all those memories from 20 years ago came flooding back. The set looked exactly as I remembered it – with no moving scenery John Napier has recreated the atmosphere that captured the public’s imagination in the original production. This was a chance to give a new look and feel to the show but it was apparently passed by. Having said that, Napier has great attention to detail and created a really intricate backdrop to showcase the performers. The costumes and makeup as well were just as I remembered them and equally detailed. Throughout the show, the performers came out into the audience so the make-up and design had to be flawless or it wouldn’t have been effective.
Once first impressions were out of the way, we settled in to watch the spectacle itself. Based on T.S Eliot’s collection of poems in ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, the show tells of a group of cats known as the Jellicles, who meet at night for Old Deuteronomy (Nicholas Pound) to choose which one will ascend into the Heaviside Layer and be reborn again. Each of the cats in turn gets a chance to tell their story and show off their individual personality. One of the things I like most about this musical is that there aren’t two or three main leads to the story, it’s a real cast effort. Grizabella (Nicole Scherzinger) may have sung the most famous and recognised song from the production (‘Memory’) but unlike the rest of the cast doesn’t spend much time on stage at all. So it takes a strong cast to carry this show off – something that Lloyd Webber must have had in mind with this ensemble.
Overall, the cast are one of the strongest I have seen in any musical. Obviously among the top performers in the West End, even the lesser members have extensive London stage experience; Bombalurina (Charlene Ford) has been in the West End productions of Singin’ in the Rain, Crazy for You, Love Never Dies and Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, whilst Bill Bailey (Adam Salter) boasts a résumé containing A Chorus Line, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers all in London. Having said that, I thought that (given the talent on stage) ensemble could have been a bit tighter – there were a few harmonies that didn’t quite work and a couple of dance numbers that weren’t as together as they could have been. This may well improve as the run continues, but I had higher expectations for this revival, especially since the original choreographer herself Gillian Lynne was back to work her magic on the show.
I can’t criticise the choreography itself, Gillian has brought her usual mix of grace & creativity to the show with everyone conveying the feline aspects of their characters convincingly. The Jellicle Ball was a particular highlight to close the first act with – Cassandra (Cassie Clare) was especially athletic and graceful here. The song of Mungojerrie (Benjamin Yates) and Rumpleteazer (Dawn Williams) was also well performed, the two interacted well together and (unlike other numbers) danced in sync. Of course, no praise on the dancing would be complete without mentioning Mr. Mistofelees (Joseph Poulton). From the first move it was clear that Poulton had ballet training, with impeccable lines and very controlled spins culminating in a well-earned standing ovation from the audience. Unfortunately the contrast to this was the Rum Tum Tugger (Antoine Murray-Straughan) who attempted to please the younger audience by poorly imitating a hip-hop gangster… It didn’t work. His vocal wasn’t up to par either, which may be why the song became more like a rap than anything else.
The songs from other members of the cast were much stronger – particular praise must go to Old Deuteronomy (Pound) with a measured and controlled vocal. Asparagus (Paul F Monaghan) also gave an emotional performance – he behaved in the same way as I remember my grandfather when he was telling me stories and it brought a tear to the eye of many an audience member. Of course I can’t comment on the songs without mentioning the most famous number and the biggest star. The hotly anticipated West End debut of Nicole Scherzinger has been talked about in the press for months and she did not disappoint. Appearing on stage only briefly, Grizabella (Scherzinger) was dressed in tattered grey clothes and knee-high boots to suggest her past success as the Glamour Cat. The first rendition of Memory was understated and vulnerable, whilst the second by contrast was powerful and heart-breaking – Scherzinger poured herself into that song effortlessly and received due praise for it.
Overall, I came out of the theatre feeling as excited as I had done 20 years previously. I knew that the show was never going to emulate the dizzying heights it achieved in its last record-breaking run, but this particular revival has kept the standard of this musical high for another generation to enjoy.