Cool for CATS – CATS on Tour at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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As incomprehensibly weird and now rather dated a show as CATS is, the touring production currently stopping off at the Birmingham Hippodrome has its fair share of pleasures, with some incredible spectacle that’s quite unlike anything you’re likely to experience elsewhere.

GusIf this sounds like faint praise, the cast and crew should think nothing of it, since it’s pretty much impossible to fault any of them. Right from the off, the set is stunning, with enough fascinating little details to make you wish you’d been around to see it all assembled and created in the first place. There’s some brilliant lighting and wonderful (if slightly bonkers) costumes and props. Most importantly of all, though, every single one of the actors in the show is on top form, by turns funny, touching and breathtaking in their skill.

The cast inhabited their characters perfectly – even when lurking in the background of a scene, the little, incidental movements of the ensemble created a realistically feline impression. Callum Train was excellent as Munkustrap, and Dawn Williams and Benjamin Yates were delightfully mischievous as Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie. Paul F Monaghan’s Asparagus was poignant and compelling, while Filippo Strocchi’s Rum Tum Tugger was utterly hilarious, particularly in certain scenes involving a set of makeshift bagpipes… Ultimately, though, with all his formal ballet training, Joseph Poulton easily stole it as Mistoffelees: his energy, expressiveness and physical finesse were beyond compare.

MistoffeleesOne thing that did cause a few issues was the pyrotechnics. There were moments when, under the light conditions in the theatre, the fireworks became painfully blinding, and made it genuinely difficult to watch parts of the Mister Mistoffelees sequence, otherwise the best part of the show. It’s a relatively minor point though, that didn’t ultimately take too much away from the strength of the direction and technical team.

The impressiveness of how the actors opened up the Jellicle world to the audience is not to be understated: they succeeded in bringing their characters to life in spite of the material they were working with. It’s just Andrew Lloyd Webber’s head I’m not sure I can get inside on this one. Not only does the whole thing largely fail to hang together, but even taking each individual part on its own merits, the episodes are hit and miss, and the show’s most famous song, “Memory”, seemed to me to be lacking in the sort of emotional resonance that it has become known for, for all Sophia Ragavelas gave it her all and performed brilliantly as the thinly drawn Grizabella.

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Earlier in the day, during a backstage tour I was invited onto, I happened to overhear some people saying that CATS is a show where, “you either get it or you don’t,” and having now seen it, I have to confess to counting myself among those who don’t. At best, it might be said to be “of its time” – the 80s was, after all, a great “experimental” era, so it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that making a collection of children’s nonsense poems into a musical for grown-ups seemed like a good idea at some point. At worst though, it makes the English Lit student inside me cringe to consider what the author of The Wasteland might have made of this becoming his best-remembered work. For that reason, it’s a difficult show to make allowances for if you’re at all passionate about literature. Yet, if the massive audiences CATS continues to draw in more than 30 years after its debut are anything to go by, it seems I’m in the minority on this one. When all’s said and done then, I suppose it’s all very well, if you like that sort of thing.

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Photos by Paul Coltas and Alessandro Pinna.

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Make Up Magic – Backstage with the Cast of CATS

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Today, the CATS musical tour begins its hotly anticipated run at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where it will be presented to excited audiences until 27th September. In advance of this evening’s first night performance, members of the press were invited backstage to watch the cast prepare for the show, with actors Filippo Strocchi and Callum Train giving us an exclusive glimpse into the creation of their characters, Rum Tum Tugger and Munkustrap.

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Unsurprisingly, learning to turn yourself into a cat is a tricky and sometimes slow process. Though the musical was first performed over 30 years ago, the make-up designs are subtly changed for each production to suit the faces of the actors involved. Callum and Filippo described the first time they got into full make-up, when a professional artist painted half their face and they were left to copy her designs on the other side. Detailed instructions on how to recreate each look are issued to the actors early on, and it can take a fair few attempts before they’re happy to take their chances without using these.

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Now, with practice and confidence, it typically takes 20-30 minutes to get fully made-up, but there have been some efforts made to get finished faster: after discovering that Marlene Danielle, who performed in CATS on Broadway for an astonishing 17 years, claimed that, with all her experience, she could get ready in just 7 minutes, the cast instigated their own “7-minute challenge”, with varying degrees of success…

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But despite the thick layers of make-up, and all the effort that goes into the feline transformation, the final result is apparently nothing like as uncomfortable as it looks. According to Filippo, even with sensitive skin, the high-quality make-up the actors use causes no irritation, though removing everything from around their eyes can be tricky! The costumes too, though not the easiest to squeeze yourself into, are specially made to fit each actor, rendering them quite snug and comfortable to wear. “It’s like a second skin,” said Callum. 

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Of course, another good reason to have fresh costumes for each performer is that, once worn on stage a few times, they won’t be left in a particularly pleasant state. CATS is a breathtakingly energetic show, that includes one of the longest, toughest dance sequences to appear in any musical. It’s partly thanks to the Jellicle Ball scene that the actors need a lot of powder on their faces, in order to prevent their make-up from running when they inevitably start to sweat!

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Since every single member of the ensemble cast has a named, recognisable part, CATS is a show where no one can get away without looking and sounding their very best on stage. Because of this, it’s a brilliant show for actors, giving everyone a chance to shine and make their presence known. On the other hand, it’s truly exhausting work, and the huge demands it places on its actors can make it very difficult to cast. 

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For Italian Filippo, being a part of CATS has some special, personal resonance, this being the show that originally inspired his career. “When I was ten, I saw CATS in London,” he explained. “Before that, I had been mostly interested in football and rock music, and I didn’t really know anything about musicals. It changed my life.”

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Who knows – perhaps through his own performance as Rum Tum Tugger, Filippo may go on to inspire a new generation of young actors….

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CATS will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 10-27 September. To book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

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Oh What a Circus! Oh What a Show! – Evita at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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Of all the shows I’ve seen over my year with the Birmingham Hippodrome, Evita is probably the one that has surprised me most of all. From what I’d heard and what I thought I knew about it, I really didn’t expect to enjoy it very much, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’d seen a little of the film before, but quite a long time ago, and only really enough to get a sense of there being a lot of Madonna in it. It didn’t really interest me much. What I discovered at the Hippodrome on Wednesday night, however, is that Evita is a fascinating and deeply political story, presented in a very interesting way. Rather than this being – as I had suspected – a show that idolises and idealises its title character, it is a thoughtful and often critical look at that very culture of celebrity idolisation.

Evita UK Tour - Mark Heenehan as Peron and Madalena Alberto as Eva - credit Keith PattisonThe fact that Eva is an actress by trade, and someone who has more than once “re-created” herself, casts into doubt the authenticity of her adopted role as Argentina’s saviour, as does much of her behaviour  – her taste for expensive clothes, for example, or her “welfare by lottery” reforms. Eva Péron “performs” Evita, in much the same way as Madalena Alberto performs Eva, and it’s this that makes her such a brilliant subject for an elaborate stage show. There’s a constant tension in both the story and the design between reality and fantasy, surface and depth, as well as a sense that every successful political campaign is a kind of show, not dissimilar to the one we’re watching. This results in some very “meta” moments, most notably when Eva sings the iconic “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, just after Péron’s election victory. When she emerges onstage above us, breathtaking in a gorgeous, glittering ballgown that seems to light up the entire room, it’s next to impossible not to be swept up in the magic and glamour of the moment. As she looks down at the audience from her balcony, we become the adoring Argentinian masses: yet, just before we’re able to get too lost in the spectacle, the revolutionary Ché appears as the voice of reason, pulling us back down to reality.

Ché’s oddly chirpy-sounding numbers unfortunately don’t have quite the same power as the soaring songs in the rest of the show, but he’s an interesting character nonetheless. You’re never quite sure who he is or where you stand with him. Is he Ché Guevara, somehow projected back from the future? Is he there to represent the Argentinian masses, or the audience? Is he Eva’s conscience or just a hallucination? Is he simply a narrator, all of those things, or something else entirely? It’s possible that all this ambiguity is partly a result of this particular production being quite a short, cut-down version of the original play, but either way, we don’t necessarily need to have definite answers for it to work.

Evita UK Tour - Marti Pellow as Che 2 - credit Keith PattisonMadalena Alberto is magnificent as Eva, capturing the character’s youth and vulnerability as well as her power and intelligence. Thanks to Matthew Wright’s amazing costume work, her sparkling white dress is just one of many beautiful outfits that she and the other women appear in. There are also some excellent performances from Nic Gibney as Magaldi and (sadly rather briefly) from Sarah McNicholas as Péron’s mistress. The ensemble cast are great all round, including the child actors, one of whom delivered an incredibly assured and professional solo. One small criticism I had was an apparent clash in singing styles: some cast members have a much more pronounced vibrato than others. While there’s not necessarily a problem with either style, it would have been better to have kept things consistent throughout.

As we’ve come to expect at the Hippodrome, too, the choreography is absolutely spot on. There are some wonderful set pieces, particularly “Péron’s Latest Flame” (which closed the first half), where upper class ladies and high-ranking soldiers frown on Péron’s and Eva’s budding relationship.

With its self-awareness, complex politics and clever characterisation, Evita is much more layered than your average West End musical, without sacrificing any of the more straightforward entertainment that other popular stage shows can offer. This production is well designed and perfectly paced, and is one I’d definitely recommend!

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Photographs by Keith Pattison.

 

Letting the CATS Out of the Bag – Tickets for CATS on Sale Next Week!

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Since its London premiere in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS has been seen by over 50 million people in over 300 cities worldwide. In autumn next year, the production will be returning to Birmingham for a hotly anticipated run at the Hippodrome.

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If you’ve been dying to get your paws on a seat at one of these shows, be sure to be ready and waiting next week, since tickets will be going on sale to the general public on Wednesday 16th October. Booking has already been open to Friends of the Birmingham Hippodrome since Monday, so be sure to book early to avoid disappointment!

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The production is directed by the Tony Award-winning Trevor Nunn, previously artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre, and features choreography by Gillian Lynne C.B.E., honoured at this year’s Olivier Awards for her work in theatre. Chrissie Cartwright will be re-creating their direction and choreography for the tour.

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CATS will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 9th – Saturday 27th September 2014. Tickets will be on sale via the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

New Season Launch – Autumn and Winter at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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After the fabulous free theatre we’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks across Birmingham’s city centre, the summer may finally be over, but the fun is far from it! The Birmingham Hippodrome has just announced a new season packed full of all sorts of exciting shows to brighten up the cold, dark winter days!

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18389_sFrom October through to Spring next year, you’ll be able to enjoy a range of smash-hit musicals, National Theatre shows on tour, contemporary dance, world-class opera and ballet from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Welsh National Opera, and of course, the return of the world’s biggest pantomime this Christmas.

The new season kicks off next month with the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, E=MC² and Tombeaux (3-5 October) and later The Sleeping Beauty, (8-12 October) followed by the National Theatre’s War Horse (16 October – 9 November). If you want to get yourself some War Horse tickets, act fast, since the show is almost sold out already!

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Alongside the War Horse run, two additional special events will be taking place: Only Remembered (Friday 8th November), a concert featuring live readings from the original War Horse novel by its author Michael Morpurgo and music from John Tams and Barry Coope, and a War Horse-themed sleepover (Friday 25th October) that will see the Patrick Centre transformed into World War I-style trenches.

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Towards the end of the month, there will be more opportunities to experience free outdoor shows in Birmingham. Make sure you wrap up warm for Illuminate! (25-27 October) a three-day light spectacular featuring interactive street projections from Shanghai, dance performances and The Lanterns of Terracotta Warriors, an extraordinary exhibition originally created for the Beijing Olympics.

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Throughout November, the Welsh National Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (12 & 16 November) and Gaetano Donizetti’s new Tudors series: Anna Bolena (13 November), Maria Stuarda (14 November) and Roberto Devereux (15 November). 

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As Christmas approaches, the Hippodrome will be helping you to get into the festive spirit with a Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (22 November – 12 December), as well as its excellent, all-star pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (19 December – 2 February). This year’s panto will star Gok Wan, Stephanie Beacham, Gary Wilmot, John Partridge and winner of the BBC’s Over the Rainbow series Danielle Hope.

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February is a great month to catch some ballet at the Hippodrome, with two more productions from the Birmingham Royal Ballet (Three of a Kind from 19-22 February and The Prince of the Pagodas from 25 February – 1 March), as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (5-15 February).

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Meanwhile, March is the month for music, with three WNO operas and two exciting musicals.  The Welsh National Opera will present Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (4 & 8 March) as well as two brand new productions, Manon Lescaut (5 & 7 March) and Boulevard Solitude (6 March). From 11-15 March, award-winning producers Music & Lyrics will be presenting their take on Fiddler on the Roof, starring Paul Michael Glaser and, towards the end of the month, the theatre’s stage will be flooded with 12,000 litres of water every night as part of its Singin’ in the Rain performances (18 March – 5 April), starring Maxwell Caulfield and Faye Tozer.

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In April, Wet, Wet, Wet frontman Marti Pellow will star in Evita (8-19 April), while a brand new musical based on the classic TV series Happy Days will star Sugababes’ Heidi Range (22-26 April). The Happy Days musical is written by the series’ creator Gary Marshall, with creative consultancy from Henry Winkler, TV’s original “Fonz”.

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May sees the return of the biennial International Dance Fest Birmingham, co-produced by the Hippodrome and DanceXchange. The festival will kick off with Sideways Rain (29-30 April) by Genevan contemporary dance company Alias, and will also include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M!longa  (23-24 May), international hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention (20-21 May), a new adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies by Matthew Bourne (14-17 May) and a performance from acclaimed ballerina Sylvie Guillem in 6,000 Miles Away (6-7 May). Bourne’s new production will feature young New Adventures dancers from the West Midlands as part of efforts to inspire a new generation to get involved in dance. 

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As Spring leads on into summer, the National Theatre‘s five-star comedy feast, One Man, Two Guv’nors will arrive in Birmingham (26-31 May), providing an excellent opportunity to catch this highly-praised production if you missed it in London. One Man, Two Guv’nors is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, reimagined in 1960s Brighton by Richard Bean.

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So it comes full circle back to summer. Next summer’s big musical show will be Wicked (9 July – 6 September). It may seem a long way to plan ahead, but tickets for Wicked are already being snapped up by audiences. In September, the Hippodrome will also be showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Check back here for details about when tickets go on sale.

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To book tickets and for more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Happy watching!