I always find it difficult to write a review about an incredibly well-known play or musical. You’ve got decades of audiences behind you, years of criticism and praise, and a wealth of sing-a-longs that have undoubtedly filled your head before you even step foot inside the theatre. When something becomes iconic, it’s hard to see past the hype and expectation, to take off the rose-tinted glasses and see it as something fresh. So when I headed to see director Trevor Nunn’s revamped comeback of Cats, having not seen it the first time round, I had to remind myself that this was, for me, a brand new production.
First of all, a note on the set. Being up in the gods at the London Palladium is definitely a little vertigo-inducing, but being that high meant I got the full impact of John Napier’s design. The beautiful canopy of lights (giving me all sorts of unhelpful future ‘big party’ ideas…), the intricately detailed ‘rubbish heap’ surrounding the stage, the collaged flooring covered in bottle labels and newspapers. This all created a sense of busyness, of disuse and reuse, as well as a scale to give the human-sized cats some perspective. I always think it’s a good then when I can barely find my seat for the staring at the stage work.
But of course, the people make the play, and the current cast of the London tour are understandably brilliant. With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impressive score, and intricate choreography by Gillian Lynne, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the fluid movement of the actors on stage, weaving between each other with a dexterity that mimics their feline counterparts. Lithe bodies accentuated by cleverly created cat suits (sorry!) move effortlessly with the music, interacting with each other, the audience, and their surroundings without slipping into pantomime. I hadn’t realised just how much dance there was in Cats, but was delighted to be witness to their skill and talent. I have to make mention of my favourite number – the tap dancing cockroaches that accompany Jennyanydots (Laurie Scarth) created a hysterical scene, and one which had me itching to tap along with them. The 1950s-esque melody and beaming faces definitely made that my standout dance, and something to break from the ‘Jellicle Cats‘ riff that underpins the majority of the production
Something you can’t have missed when hearing about Cats this year is the West End debut of Nicole Scherzinger. Yes, it definitely helps your marketing campaign to get a pop star into your programme. But it also brings your production under much more stringent scrutiny – everyone wondering if airbrushed TV fame can relate on stage. Firstly, I would like to point out that Grizabella appears in just a handful of scenes, so regardless of who plays it you cannot quite steal the entire show. However, here I admit that my doubts were completely and utterly thrown out the window. Scherzinger’s 2nd act reprise of ‘Memories‘ – that famed classic that is a test of true talent – was without any question the best vocals I have ever heard on stage. And I don’t make that claim lightly. When it comes to celebrity casts, I tend to be far more judgemental. But I write here, in black and white, clear as day, that I was blown away by her performance, her vocal strength, her pure and undeniable singing mastery shown in just one short song. And through it all, she acted as a true professional, maintaining Grizabella’s hobbling gait as the rapturous applause went on for a considerable length of time. Best of all, she was not singled out in the bows. There’s nothing worse – in my opinion – than a production hyping up their celebrity when it comes to the curtain call. As just another member of the team, she wasn’t the main focus of the play, and she bounded on with the others with the same ecstatic response to a standing ovation as any actor would have. That one moment has changed my opinion of her radically.
Despite all this praise, I do admit that Cats wasn’t the best musical I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant, and the well-known score held its own. But the change of Rum Tum Tugger’s song from rock-god to rapper was oddly incongruous to the rest of the production. Antoine Murray-Straughan didn’t let that hold him back, and proved himself to be just as good a singer and dancer as the rest of them. But it didn’t sit well amidst the operatic nature of the other numbers. Perhaps, as this was early on in the play, it dimmed my opinion a little. Or perhaps, heaven forbid, I just like other musicals more. Both are true, and every play I see definitely doesn’t have to trump the last. Still, I would recommend you go see it. For the spectacle, and the choreography, and the music – but also for the history as these musicals come and go, and you never know when it might be their last run.