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.
If 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.
One 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.
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.
Photos by Paul Coltas and Alessandro Pinna.