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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