Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot
David Ian Productions in association with Michael Watt
Sheffield Lyceum

Greg Castiglione (Asparagus) and Celia Graham (Jellylorum) Credit: Alessandro Pinna

Cats has exploded on to the stage of the Lyceum this week. It is thrilling to watch a faithful revival of the original production, which closed in 2002 on its 21st birthday, at the time the longest running musical in the history of West End Theatre.

The genesis of the production in the late '70s and early '80s makes fascinating reading. The young Andrew Lloyd Webber was already established as a composer and orchestrator after the early success of Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita when he conceived the idea of composing a song cycle based on T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

In collaboration with the untried producer Cameron Mackintosh, the RSC’s Trevor Nunn and brilliant choreographer Gillian Lynne, the initial idea developed into a "revolutionary", ground-breaking new kind of musical, episodic, not dependent on a narrative line, distinguished by the danced-through as well as sung-through nature of the composition. "The whole show is one, nearly uninterrupted, dance sequence" (Elaine Peake).

The current revival started life in December 2014 and reunited the original creative team to work on the show. Trevor Nunn’s direction and Gillian Lynne’s choreography is ably supported by Chrissie Cartwright as Associate Director and Choreographer.

The production is a synthesis of creative talents. From the initial thrilling lighting effects to Grizabella’s ascension to cat heaven, the audience is in thrall to the visual aspects of the production, costume, stunning make-up, an excitingly adaptable set, as well the inventiveness of the choreography, the range and variety of the music and the tireless energy of the cast.

The opening of the show introduces us to the Jellicle cats, their secret names and the significance of the Jellicle Ball. A sequence of individual performances follows, closely based on Eliot’s poem, including Marcquelle Ward as a particularly cheeky Rum Tum Tugger.

Marianne Benedict’s appearance as the mangy, sick, ostracised Grizabella, the Glamour Cat who has known better times, darkens the mood of the first half and reminds us of mutability. Benedict’s painful movement, hollow-eyed facial expression and plangent singing provide the link that takes us through to the second half of the show.

Jollity is restored in a hugely enjoyable, rhythmic, witty, athletic dance by Joe Henry and Emily Langham as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, but Benedict returns at the end of the act to give a deliberately de-energised performance of the well known "Memory", in stark contrast to her powerful, show-stopping rendition at the end of the evening.

The second half has more delights to offer. Greg Castiglioni is a robust and convincing Growltiger, who is joined by Leonie Thoms as a flighty Jellylorum in an impressive parody of an operatic duet. He puts up a good fight against a terrifying army of Siamese cats but still has to walk the plank.

The staging of the Shimbleshanks (Railway Cat) sequence is impressive in its inventiveness and typical of RSC productions of the '80s when set transformations were performed as we watched.

The name of Macavity is whispered with dread throughout the performance. Javier Cid brings him to life with terrifying reality. The mood changes again when Mr Mistoffelees (Shiv Riberhu) entrances us with his magic tricks and comeidic dancing.

There are more impressive individual performances that deserve a mention, but this is essentially an ensemble piece with every member of the singing, dancing cast giving it their all. The choreography is endlessly inventive and long sequences are performed with tireless energy. The quality of individual and choral singing is excellent, and most of the cast articulate Eliot’s witty verse with great clarity. Occasionally, though, the language is drowned out by the orchestra.

Although the narrative line of the musical is slight, there is an underpinning theme which comes out strongly in the older characters, Grizabella, Old Deuteronomy and Gus the Theatre Cat, which reflects Eliot’s preoccupation with the passage of time and the transience of human life. Memory is a important part of this which perhaps explains why the theme song is not only moving in its context but has had such wide and popular appeal.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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