The cats are back on the prowl, in the Burn FM studio and on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage. Phoebe and Freya from ‘CatCalls’ went to review the classic musical directed once more by the legendary Trevor Nunn.
With neither of us having seen the show before, we entered the theatre with a vague awareness and limited knowledge of what we were about to witness. Our expectations of cats singing in the moonlight about their party days gone by, the iconic song ‘Memory’ and many many skin-tight cat suits were not disappointed. And for some, that is CATS the musical summed up, but it’s so much more than that.
Our first impressions were positive, and the set struck us immediately. Whilst sat waiting for the show to start, the curtains were drawn back presenting the lit stage, aided by the bright full moon shining down on us, giving us a chance to make some initial judgments. The stunning set was well designed with oversized rubbish piles, and trash almost pouring down into the audiences seating. The grimy bonnet of a large car shrunk the audience down to feline size, and hinted at the allowance of many performance levels. This gave us hope for a creatively used space, however such potential was at times wasted due to the large chorus and limited space onstage.
This hit show is over 33 years old, making these cats well into their 9 lives, and now nearing towards the end of a tour of the UK and Europe, they’ve settled in Birmingham until the 27th September. The Hippodrome put down a saucer of milk and installed a cat flap as the felines and audience members alike came in their drones. The crowd consisted of punters who had clearly known and the loved the show for many years, and were now taking this opportunity to share this wonderful and whimsical memory with their grandchildren.
The audience interaction came as a pleasant surprise. The show kicked off with a dramatic opening overture and an impressive light show on stage, which felt a bit unneeded as the audience had already been offered a good visual introduction to the stage. All at once, the cats entered along the aisles, rushing down but taking the time to peer amongst the faces. This then built into a fantastic and superbly choreographed opening dance number, with the audience transfixed by the Brechtian styled characterisation. By utilising epic theatre, as many musicals do, Nunn is able to highlight key characters subliminally rather than forcefully as is seen more within naturalistic performances.
Not only did the music reflect upon the time it was written, but the delightful colour fest of various costumes covered in fur captured the essence of the 80s. ‘CATS’ is seemingly frozen in time forever, but it would appear not for much longer. Once the musical has completed its tour, the shabby cats are getting preened and groomed for a 12 week run at the London Palladium in December.
The limited return to the West End is being overlooked by the original team of the 1981 production; Trevor Nunn directing, Gillian Lynne choreographing, John Napier designing, and Lord Lloyd Webber himself rewriting a few of the songs. One of the major changes will be the song ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’, because “it was never my favourite moment of the show” says Webber. Along with this a modern twist will be added to update the vibe of the show, as Rum Tum Tugger transforms into a hip street cat, whose rapping beats will offer a great challenge for the chorus’ dance choreography.
Act 1 was a strong introduction to the many different cats, and offered a chance to reveal their unique personalities, but the story was somewhat lacklustre. However, Act 2 picked up the pace with a jazzy number and an interesting plotline to follow, and this continued as the second half progressed.
The first performance to truly catch us swishing our tails to the beat was the high impact dance piece ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, a difficult choreography perfectly executed by the incomparable Joseph Poulton. His energetic, dynamic and daring performance had the audience on the edge of the seats as he continually surprised us with his unstoppable stamina. This was then followed by something slower, Sophia Ragavelas’ strong rendition of the iconic song ‘Memory’, surprising us with her powerful control of the song.
Although we can’t say we fell in love with the musical itself, the company’s flawless performance of a classic and well loved tale was outstanding, and the experience of being transported into the world of the Jellicle cats is something that will be truly memorable for us both.
CATS is on at the Birmingham Hippodrome until the 27th September.