“These modern productions are all very well…”
Taking your seat in the Palladium to see the musical theatre behemoth that is Cats – now 33 years old and receiving a 12 week revival here in one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s own theatres – is an act of strangely calculated nostalgia. Famed for being one of the longest-running shows both on Broadway and the West End, its feline frolics remain entirely evocative of the 80s and as it reunites the original creative team – director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, designer John Napier – that should come as little surprise.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it was actually a feat of some daring. A through-sung, through-danced piece with no real narrative, save that taken from T.S.Eliot’s book of whimsical poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In essence, we meet the key characters of a tribe of cats who have gathered in a junkyard for a special night where one of them will be selected to be reborn into a new life in cat Heaven (or more accurately, be part of a rather dodgy bit of stagecraft, almost as naff as those cats’ eyes at the beginning).
Sticking with the 80s theme, the whole experience is strangely akin to listening to someone like Phil Collins’ greatest hits. Undeniably anthemic moments of power balladry (‘Against All Odds’/’Memory’); unfortunate foot-in-mouth moments (the cod-sympathy for the homeless of ‘Another Day in Paradise’/the stereotypical racial imagery of ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’); an abundance of 80s productions values (pretty much everywhere but especially in ‘Sussudio’/’Jellicle Ball’).
And you can guarantee if a new hits collection were to be issued today, it would come complete with an ill-advised urban remix. And in place of a misjudged Nicki Minaj feature, we get actual rap interludes from Rum Tug Tugger, breathtaking in their incongruity. Antoine Murray-Straughan is game indeed as the newly streetdancing moggie and just about pulls off his first number with a nonchalant swagger but the second, allied to the audience clap-along of ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, is just painful.
Such notional updating sticks out like a sore thumb in the show as a whole and the transitions are anything but seamless – these never feel like organic additions to Lynne’s choreography. Nor are they necessary, for whether seeing the full company of well over 20 bodies dancing their exhilarating way through the Jellicle Ball or marvelling at the dazzling technical ability of Joseph Poulton’s solo as Mr Mistoffelees, the quality of the dance speaks for itself.
And it is an ensemble show at heart, despite the star billing of Nicole Scherzinger which takes precedent over both composer and writer on the publicity. Grizabella is an outcast from the group which works in Scherzinger’s favour as there’s little of the detailed movement work that characterises all of the other players. And she blasts through the iconic ‘Memory’ with all the fury of a nuclear blast – all explosive power but little subtlety or suggestion of character, again jarring the dramatic flow.
So the overall experience is a very mixed bag. When Cats does what it does, what it has always done for over 30 years, there’s a persuasive kind of pleasure at work. But the interventions to try and capture a contemporary relevance are sorely misguided – a programme note from Nunn says how he has “learned all about the groove, and the hook and the track. I am almost cool” – one almost believes that he isn’t being entirely serious…