Frankie Thompson
SICK! Festival
Simpson Memorial Hall, Manchester

CAattS Credit: Erin Hopkins
CAattS Credit: Erin Hopkins
CAattS Credit: Erin Hopkins
CAattS Credit: Erin Hopkins

Anyone finding the rapid pace of technological development daunting might welcome the vintage vibe of Frankie Thompson’s CAattS.

The show takes place in the 1980s, or the character—sole performer and author Thompson—has not advanced beyond that period (I can relate). Thompson enters in full 1980s exercise garb—leotard, leg warmers and sweat bands. She is, of course exercising to Jane Fonda's Workout, ubiquitous in the period, and it is not streamed or on DVD but on VHS video. The video has, however, been taped over other shows which gradually intrude, so the exercise programme becomes absorbed by shows about cats—Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Postman Pat, The Apprentice, The Simpsons and Jacob Rees-Mogg(y).

An overture suggests Thompson’s workout regime is obsessive rather than healthy, as she combines over-exercising with binge-eating. Thompson acknowledges people have been disturbed to see her gobbling tuna from a can in public but can’t understand the reason—they wouldn’t bother if she was a cat. There is a hint of jealousy as Thompson recounts how cats became regarded as lovable after Louis Wain’s 19th century drawings of anthropomorphised cats and kittens became popular. Cats, Thompson seems to suggest, have it easy. CAattS is, therefore, an enactment of the ways in which Thompson copes with her anxieties including fantasising about becoming a cat.

Apart from the opening and closing sections, Thompson rarely speaks during the show. Rather she lip-syncs and mimes in time to the recordings which are intruding over the exercise programme. This results in caricatures bordering on the grotesque: a coquettish Elaine Page and a monstrous Jacob Rees-Mogg. Some of the extracts used in the show are fascinating in themselves: the cast of Cats taking part in a TV road safety advertisement.

CAattS is hilarious. An apparently affectionate and reasoned discussion on the identifying features of Crazy Cat Ladies concludes with Thompson going right over the top and chucking toy cats into the audience. Even the jokes which don’t work (Thompson is forced to explain a gag about motorway cats’ eyes which goes over the heads of the audience) have a certain charm. There is a superb closing punchline which contradicts everything that has gone before.

Director Liv Ello ensures the serious themes of the show are not overlooked among the rapid jokes. It is probable the events are playing out in Thompson’s mind as she reacts to the shows on the VHS tape, and Ello sets a slightly desperate and compulsive mood. At times, Thompson does not seem to be impersonating the celebrities so much as being possessed by their personalities against her will. As she mimes, her mouth is stretched and her eyes are wide and close to panic. Thompson combines her obsession with cats and binge-eating by petting a loaf of bread as if it were a feline. Her version of a contestant on The Apprentice trying to flog a calendar comprising pictures of cats manages to be both arrogant and terrified at the same time.

CAattS takes an original approach to the issue of mental health and is imaginatively staged. Despite the grim subject matter, Frankie Thompson’s inspired clowning avoids bogging down in analysis and is hilarious from start to finish.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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