Cats

Words by T S Eliot, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
David Ian Productions in association with Michael Watt
Opera House, Manchester

Cats, the company Credit: Alessandro Pinna
Joanna Ampil as Grizabella Credit: Alessandro Pinna
Ben Plamer as Munkustrap Credit: Alessandro Pinna

Dropped into Manchester’s Opera House almost 11 years after the original, massively successful, show closed, the question has to be—can Cats land on its feet again?

As the lights go down, all is darkness at the rubbish tip, aside from a full moon. Eyes, cats’ eyes, shine in the blackness. The Jellicle cats gather to hear from their leader, Old Deuteronomy, which of them is to be granted the gift of a new life (a chance to start afresh).

Will it be one of the old timers—the palsied actor, Gus, the sedentary Gumbie, or the shambling, aristocratic Bustopher Jones? Perhaps he’ll choose one of the younger generation—the dashing Rum Tum Tugger (very popular with the ladies), or one of that misbehaving duo, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer? Or might it be the outcast, the faded glamour puss, Grizzabella? Not her, surely, not her..?

Over the 21 years of its initial run, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats broke records in the West End and on Broadway. Back on tour and the signs up to the interval are not so good. The proscenium arch setting hampers the fluidity of the production’s original intent. The performances are strong both in dance and song, but the set seems a little dated and Gillian Lynne’s choreography, brilliant in its day, needs supplementing in order to freshen up the production. There is, after all, more than one way to primp a cat.

During the interval, a little girl on the row in front is having more fun browsing photos of real cats on her mobile phone than she did from listening to Lloyd Webber’s limited and repetitive score. The good Lord Andrew may well think his cat still has 8 lives left, but it is in genuine danger of losing at least one of those this evening.

Thankfully, post-interval, this domesticated tiger shows some signs of not having lost its growl. Skimbleshanks, ably performed by Ross Finnie, warms the audience in a number that, at long last, makes some imaginative use of set and props, creating a runaway steam train before our eyes.

With a change pace and mood, Lily Frazer’s Demeter and Melissa James’s Bombalina deliver a sassy, sensuous, jazzy account of the villainous Macavity’s career in crime. And although his magical jinks (like other aspects of the show) could use a 21st century upgrade, Joseph Poulton dances Mistoffelees with panache. At the centre, Old Deuteronomy (Nicholas Pound) brings stillness and gravitas and sings beautifully.

The little girl leans forward in her seat, her attention seized by the action and sounds on stage. This is what she’d hoped for, she and the rest of the packed house. And now, the emotional climax...

Step forward Joanna Ampil, as Grizabella, to deliver the musical highlight, “Memory”, with a clarity and emotional conviction that sends a tingle down the spine, winning her, quite rightly, the ovation of the night. Purrfection (oh, come on, you knew there had to be at least one feline pun!)

So, does this revival land on its feet?

‘Jellicle cats can, and Jellicle cats do...’ Just about.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson