Cats

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham and touring
(2004)

It's the world's longest-running musical. It played in London for 21 years, it's been performed in 11 different languages in 26 countries and it's been seen by more than 50 million people. Yes, Cats definitely has more than nine lives.

It won five Musical of the Year awards, it's been presented in a tent in Japan and an engine shed in Switzerland, and so far it's grossed more than $2billion. So can 50 million people be wrong? Of course not.

Andrew Lloyd Webber may be disliked in some circles but when it comes to composing blockbusters out of almost surreal topics, he has no equal. You feel he could even have engineered a recent survey from the Cats Protection League to coincide with this tour; it showed that man's best friend is now his cat and Britons currently own more moggies than mutts.

I'm not letting the cat out of the bag if I tell you that Cats is set in a junkyard where a tribe of Jellicle Cats reunite to celebrate their abilities and idiosyncracies. But there's always one who puts the cat among the pigeons - the villainous Macavity and his henchmen capture the cats' leader, Old Deuteronomy. Eventually conjuring cat Mr Mistoffelees comes to the rescue and everyone is left purring with delight.

Cats is not only a triumph for Lloyd Webber, it's also a celebration of the genius of Thomas Stearns Eliot. Most of his poems in their original form have been set to music. Some of the lyrics were discovered among Eliot's unpublished writings and even the worldwide hit Memory is suggested in one of his other works; Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe came up with minor revisions.

One of the problems though of taking Cats on the road is that the actors don't get the usual amount of room to work in. The show had to be adapted for the Royal Concert Hall stage and a new lighting rig had to be installed. So full marks to the technical crew for avoiding what could have been a cat-astrophe.

The smaller stage means that some of the cats make their entrances through the side doors, bringing them much closer to the audience. There are times when you really feel part of the action. Conversely, sometimes there's too much going on; when the formerly glamorous Grizabella makes her final exit, many people watch her going out at the back of the auditorium, missing a stunning special effect on stage involving Old Deuteronomy.

I'm reliably informed that improvements are continually being made to the show so that any niggling problems are eradicated. Hopefully the sound balance will also get better; there were times when the band came over far too loudly, drowning out some of the actors who could hardly be heard.

Despite the small stage, there's some exquisite dancing. There's no finer sight than more than 20 people working in harmony, their balletic, graceful moves leaving you almost breathless. They have all the mannerisms and slinkiness of real felines.

Most impressive are Mistoffelees (Guy-Paul Ruolt de St Germain), a superb dancer who has played the same part in the French and Dutch productions as well as in the West End, and Mungojerrie (Andrew Prosser) and Rumpelteazer (Laura Brydon), extremely athletic in a confined space.

Having seen Cats before, I notice that Stuart Ramsay plays Rum Tum Tugger more extrovertly and with more flamboyance than is usual, rather than portraying him as cool and somewhat aloof.

The performances are largely exceptional, especially from Chrissie Hammond. She has the unenviable task as Grizabella of singing Memory, the number which has been recorded more than 100 times. She sings it powerfully yet with control; the applause is rapturous.

This version of Cats may be slightly different from what you're expecting. But despite the small technical problems, it's still the cats' whiskers.

"Cats" runs at the Royal Concert Hall until March 20th, then tours to Leicester, Southampton, Bristol, Canterbury and Norwich until July 10th

Reviewer: Steve Orme