It’s been decades since the world was first introduced to the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and over thirty years later it’s still one of the best musicals to ever grace the stage. As someone who saw the show during its original run, I’m overjoyed to say that in its transition from West End to international tour, Cats has lost none of its charm, sparkle or wonder. It still has the ability to win over an entire audience in its opening song, and it’s still just as likely to provoke tears as it is to prompt laughter.
The New Wimbledon Theatre played host to the Jellicle Ball yesterday and the performance was a true spectacle, both gorgeous to watch and listen to. A winning combination of enchanting story, first-rate performers and timeless songs, and there wasn’t a sour face in sight. No spilt milk for these kitties.
Based on T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the musical transports its audience to a world of cats, where a tribe of characterful felines come together for a ceremony that decides which cat gets to ascend to the Heaviside layer and be given an extra life. It’s a simple yet zany concept but there’s never been any doubt that it works, and the audience of smiling faces yesterday was proof of that.
As I took my seat, the theatre was buzzing with excitement. The stage had been converted into a cat’s lair, a scrap-yard playground fashioned from giant-size rubbish. The level of detail was incredible. When the lights went down and the music started, the stage was quiet – not a cat in sight. Then the eyes started appearing from the darkness, flashing that familiar yellow glow. Suddenly cats were appearing from nowhere in the audience – to look up and see a cat with glowing eyes mere inches from my face was both thrilling and startling. In what other musical do the performers move so freely within the audience?
With that introduction the cats took to the stage and performed their hearts out, singing and dancing through the classic collection of songs, which eventually culminated in the big finale – the Jellicle choice. The cats often left the stage and visited the stalls, where they interacted with audience members – hissing and purring as they went. One individual was even treated to a dance with resident kitty-pimp Rum Tum Tugger, which she rather sheepishly succumbed to. If this all sounds a bit too much like a pantomime, it’s not. Despite the cheekiness and playful jokes, Cats is a class act. It’ll be fun and frisky one moment and thoughtful and serious the next, bringing with it a whole spectrum of emotions.
Lloyd Webber’s score is rousing and memorable, and the songs sound as good now as they did back in the day. Cats’ defining feature, however, is the fact that it’s almost entirely uninterrupted dance from start to finish and it’s so impressive to watch. There was something strangely hypnotic about the cats as they slinked, crawled and danced across the stage – you couldn’t take your eyes off them even if you wanted to. Not that you’d ever want to look away and miss a precious moment.
I can only guess the amount of time that must go into creating the skin-tight costumes – each one different from the last with unique markings and quirks. Combine this with the wonderful make-up and lighting design and it puts other productions to shame.
The performers gave it their all and were every bit as good as the West End cast were. Flawless dancing was met by faultless singing and, quite unusual for a live performance, there wasn’t a duff note to be heard. Joanna Ampil’s powerful rendition of Memories – made famous by Elaine Page – was heart wrenching, whilst Paul F Monaghan slipped between three roles with not even a hint of effort.
Every single cast member embodied the character of their cat, adding little feline nuances that made their performances realistic. Natasha Mould’s Jemima was a clear highlight, her bright-eyed enthusiasm cutting through the rubbish heap like a beacon. Benjamin Yates’ Mungojerrie was also a joy to watch, as he bounded across the stage with seemingly unlimited energy alongside his partner in crime, Rumpleteazer. Their famous double cartwheel did not disappoint. Whether being amused by Rum Tum Tugger’s swagger or marvelling over magical Mr. Mistoffelees – who really was rather enchanting – there wasn’t a single lull, which is no mean feat for a full-length musical.
A young boy sat a few seats along from me and his face was one of awe. I imagine mine was a mirror image. Cats is like the wackiest and most beautiful of dreams – a dream where cats sing and dance under the light of the moon, where dance never looked so good and songs never sounded so lovely. Go see the 2014 tour before it ends and prepare to be charmed by the entire production.