Odd Event Reviews... Cats - The Musical
Andy Simpkins reviews the furniture-scratching, flowerbed-digging, caterwauling, feline oddity that is "Cats" at the Mayflower theatre, Southampton, 8th March 2008
You have to hand it to Andrew Lloyd-Webber. He might have a face that has been in contact with a tame black hole but he can certainly write a musical. For those readers who have read my review of "Starlight Express" in the web pages of this fair website of ours, you may have noticed that I was indeed waxing lyrical about it. This comes as no surprise and it is no wonder that many of the aforementioned facially-challenged ones musical productions have record-breaking runs, both here in the West End and on Broadway as well. Nowadays, it seems that the aforementioned Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is becoming something of a fixture on our TV screens on a Saturday night. First it was to find a suitable Joseph for his revived production of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat" and now, he wants to find two principal actors for a production of "Oliver". Stranger still is the fact that he has the ever-present shy and retiring John Barrowman in attendance as well as one of the judges.
Other members of the Staggering Stories editorial team have been to see this musical before I have, and all I can say, and I am sure they will agree with me:Do not book an aisle seat! You will find out later on in this review why I have put this statement in bold type. Let's just say that El Presidente and Chief Scientist for this site, Adam, had an interesting experience at the paws of a white Persian cat during the performance.
You will have previously read about my description of the Mayflower theatre so there is no need to go into it again. Taking our seats, I was idly flicking through the programme for tonights events when I found out a particularly interesting fact. You may know that the poet T. S. Eliot and his work "Old Possums Book Of Practical Cats", upon which this musical is based on, has a memorial in Poets Corner. You might he was the quintessential English poet but actually he was born out in St. Louis, Missouri in the USA and didn't actually settle over here until he was in his late twenties. An interesting piece of trivia and one I thought worthy of inclusion in this review.
Whereas the stage props for "Starlight Express" were minimal as to allow the actors free rein to skate unimpeded around the stage, the stage for "Cats" was decked out as a junk yard, with tyres, paint pots and other assorted detritus strewn around, complete with plenty of bolt-holes where a fleeing feline might dart into. All of this was presided over by a backdrop of a nighttime sky and a full moon shrouded with clouds.
A spotlight pans across the stage, revealing the silhouette of a cat scurrying amidst the rubbish, looking for a place of shelter. Wary and curious at first, like the music which is snatched, furtive and elusive, the slinking feline forms that make their way out onto the stage gradually begin to trust us and allow us Humans admittance to their world...
Once every year, the Jellicle Cats reunite in this place so that they can dance at the Jellicle Ball until their revered aged leader;Old Deuteronomy, can decide which one will be privileged enough to be allowed to go to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn and start a new Jellicle life.
Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats kicks off the proceedings. A lively and up-tempo number that extols the virtues of being feline. From the start, you can see that a great deal of work has gone into the proceedings and the choreography is second to none.
During the course of the song, a spotlight is shone down onto the stage to simulate a bedroom light is flicked on as its owner gets up to investigate the din in the junkyard. The singing is momentarily halted as a rather large boot falls or is thrown down from the lighting gantry, by way of a vain attempt to silence the festivities down below.
The Naming of Cats tells us how each Jellicle cat has three names, the first name is what their Human owner gives to them and what they answer to in everyday life. Their second name is much more dignified and is only known to them and their feline peers. Thirdly, each cat has its own name, peculiar to itself and that is why cats sit in motionless contemplation for hours on end. It is because they are pondering on the many facets of their special name. The actors were up on the stage in three ranks imparting this information before they broke ranks and they all got down off the stage to wander up the aisles of the theatre, stalking the audience as though they were their prey, every so often one of the cast would lean over and put their face right up against a member of the audience, who would be invariably cowering in their seat whimpering "... no, no, no... " in a tiny strangled voice. This is what happened to the married couple and their young daughter who were sitting right next to us. That is why you should never have an aisle seat.
Having gained their trust, the cats allow us to have a ringside seat for the Jellicle Ball. Opening the events come Victoria the White Cat, lithe and limber and obviously a trained ballet dancer. Executing graceful ballet moves, she moves around the stage and opens up the way for the narrator for some of the songs, a tall tabby called Munkustrap to regale the audience about the old Gumbie cat, an acquaintance of his called Jennyanydots;who all day "just sits and sits and sits and sits, and that what makes a Gumbie cat".
A lid is opened on one of the rubbish bins on stage to reveal the rather portly form of Jennyanydots who waddles out on stage and listens attentively as Munkustrap sings. But as the song reveals, when her days work is done, she sheds her persona of the day, the padded coat to be removed to reveal a more slender form and becomes the cock of the walk and the mistress of the house, demanding that the cockroaches in the kitchen find gainful employment and the mice to be educated and well versed in cookery and crochet. To show that she means business, several of the cast, dressed as kitchen cockroaches in bulbous black costumes with colanders to simulate insectile compound eyes and waving other assorted kitchen utensils, dance out on stage to form a V-shape behind her as they perform a tap-dance routine worthy of any Busby Berkley movie.
As you will know, there are cats who are just too full of themselves, good looking, too contrary for their own good and they know it. Swaggering out onto the stage, comes the Rum Tum Tugger. Tall, lean and with a bushy mane of fur and a big ruff around. his neck, he has the lady cats in his thrall at his feet as he sings how he is a curious cat. Waving and swinging his tail around suggestively, he struts up and down the stage singing how he is too sexy to be true. His song is punctuated by the ooo's and ahh's from his captive female audience as, with a cocky sneer on his face, he goes against everything that his owners do for him, saying when he's caught a mouse, he'd rather have a rat, when he lives in a house, he'd rather live in a flat. He finishes his song to the adoring gazes of the lady cats and casually flicks his ruff up as a street punk might flick up the collar on his leather jacket as a gesture of casual defiance.
The tone of the play takes a downward turn as a pathetic figure sidles out onto the stage and the music takes a minor and more subdued note. Her once luxurious coat is frayed and shabby and her general air is one of neglect and despondency. Her expression is downcast and her countenance carries a sadness that can only be hinted at. This is Grizabella, the glamour puss. She left the Jellicle cat clan to explore the big wide world and, in the process was made into an outcast by her peers and now she has returned but she is not greeted with open arms and receiving scratches from the rest of the clan, is still treated as a pariah. Old memories die hard as she senses that she must remain on the outside, hopefully waiting acceptance by her kin. Saddened by the reception she has just received, she trudges offstage, casting the occasional glance behind her.
The introductions continue and on comes Bustopher Jones, resplendent in his white spats and his coat of fastidious black, carrying a cane and his considerable bulk with ease. A twenty-five pounder he is as he frequents the restaurants and clubs, he does not frequent pubs, in the centre of London, namely St. James Street and as a result has grown quite rotund. In the original production, he was played by Brian Blessed, with his booming voice and his ever-cheerful demeanour. Consider yourself honoured if you are lauded to or bowed at by that cat and if he is in a hurry, then he is probably in search of curry.
Suddenly there is a loud crash and searchlights pan the stage. That can only mean one thing;McCavity the feline criminal mastermind is on the loose and wants to make his way back to the Jellicle clan. He is trouble personified and the rest of the clan scatter, to leave a deserted stage in darkness.
From the wings comes a mischievous tittering as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer come out on stage. Now these next two on stage are dynamite and I mean that. I have never seen such energetic dances and such athletic choreography as these two perform. The scourge of their owners in Victoria Grove, they 'move through the house like a hurricane' like 'quick change chameleons and knockabout clowns', they are incurably given to roam. They delight in causing havoc and stealing items of clothing, food from the table much to the resignation of their owners. Whether they are brother and sister or are mates is never divulged. However, they have similar markings on their coats/leotards so I can only assume that they are members of the same family who indulge in trying the patience of their owners. Abandoning the bags of stuff they have pilfered from various sources, they gambol around the stage and launch into the most athletic dance routine I have ever seen in a musical. I know you have to be fit to both sing and dance at the same time but to grab your partner around the waist and perform a double cartwheel around the stage and to finish it off with a punishing set of backwards flips is some thing else. Full marks to Andrew Lloyd-Webber; the man with the collapsed face for choosing actors who can live up to such a demanding regimen of strenuous physical activity on stage.
The music takes on a more gentler tone as the atmosphere takes on an air of gravitas as Old Deuteronomy, the revered and aged leader of the Jellicle clan, is gently lead down the aisle by Munkustrap to take his place at the head of the clan. His countenance was heavy with age and his coat was heavily tinged with grey and long and shaggy. His movements were deliberate and his joints were stiff. As a result, Munkustrap motioned to a couple of members of the cast to bring a seat up from the rear of the stage so Old Deuteronomy could sit in comfort as the rest of the cast laid on a small show by way of tribute to him and his presiding over the Jellicle Ball and the events that transpire.
"The Aweful Battle of The Pekes And The Pollicles Together With The Marching Songs Of The Pollicle Dogs" is a description of the historic events that happened when two tribes of small yappy dogs had an epic confrontation. The lines were drawn and the two teams of protagonists marched out onto the field of battle. On one side were the Pekes, basically a selection of the cast with big papier mache dog heads, lining up on the left hand side of the stage and taking a pugilistic stance as their deadly adversaries;the Pollicle Dogs, clad rather strangely with shoe boxes on their heads and on their feet, shuffle out onto the stage and line up in a regimented rank opposite their foes. The two sworn enemies glare at each other, mutual loathing etched on every line of their faces and then, as is the wont with small yappy dogs, they set up the most appalling din as they yapped and snapped incessantly without actually advancing and indulging in any actual physical contact and fighting.
This would have continued indefinitely if it had not been for the timely intervention of the Rumpus Cat. Leaping between the verbally sparring sides, he only had to fluff his tail up and arch his back threateningly to have the Pekes and the Pollicle Dogs fleeing in panic.
What happened next is a triumph of the choreographers art. The Jellicle Ball is upon them. Like Starlight Express, how anyone can dance and not bump into their partner is beyond be. So many feline gyrations on such a small stage can only be marveled at as the accumulated felines cavorted around the stage as they celebrated the coming together of their clan and the hope that one of them will be selected to ascend to be reborn. The celebrations reach a climax and the stage is vacated as they all dash off to to prepare, each hoping that they will be the lucky cat.
It is at this moment that Grizabella makes her way back onto the stage. Seeing that the coast is clear, she pauses in her wanderings to reminisce upon what happened when she left the Jellicle clan to see what the outside world is like. She desperately wants to be re accepted into the clan but the rest of them are simply not having it. . The song 'Memory', originally sung by Elaine Paige and a perennial favourite of many a musical compilations CD, is a sad litany to the time before she left the tribe for her wanderings. Saddened by the reception and the antipathy still shown towards her, even after all this time, she once again skulks off to ponder her fate.
All throughout the first half of the show, many of the mannerisms of cats were closely documented. One instance that springs to mind, there is one scene where The Rum Tum Tugger is lounging on a raised section of the stage scenery with his tail dangling over the edge and one of the cats reclining against a lower section of the same piece of scenery takes a token swipe at Rum Tums tail. The same could be said about the way they can move languorously one moment and be a blur of movement the next.
The lights came up to signal the end of the first half of the performance. Old Deuteronomy stayed up on stage and sat himself upon a large truck tyre at the back of the stage. A long queue of autograph hunters formed an orderly line as they waited patiently to get a signature. When he wasn't signing buts of paper, he was lifting up the edge of his furry headpiece and dabbing at his brow. Can't say I blame him as to don all that grease-paint and costume and almost continual dancing for an hour each way. To do all that and not perspire is no mean feat whatsoever.
All too soon, the lights dim and the second half opens with the cats pondering upon the moments of happiness before more cats are introduced.
Another aged paragon of feline virtue is introduced as Asparagus, or Gus to his
friends, shuffles out onto the stage. His paws trembling with a barely controlled palsy and his coat a literal patchwork of colours, he brightens visibly when he has a willing audience in Jellylorum, one of the young female cats who happens to be attending the Jellicle Ball. He has been on all the biggest and best stages in the West End and a few other places as well and has acted alongside the greats of the stage. He considers his piece de resistance to be the play about Growltigers Last Stand
Now Growltiger was a river cat, living on board a barge which plied the River Thames. Now stripped of his advanced years and straighter in posture and more defiant of manner, Gus, now transformed into the noble Growltiger, complete with a coat ablaze with vibrant colours and a dashing eye patch, describes how a fair young female cat by the name of Griddlebone;Jellylorum now transformed into a voluptuously large fluffy white cat, caught his eye and he set out to woo her. So wrapped up in his wooing of her, he failed to notice a boarding party of Siamese cats getting on board. Another cunning ploy of the wardrobe department was not to have the invaders dressed as cats but as warriors dressed in traditional and very ornate Thailand historical armour, complete with a stylised cat face motif on the front breastplate. Sadly he was no match or the villainous Siamese, led by the villainous Genghis, and he met his untimely demise by being made to walk the plank.
Pleased that he has been able to relive his crowning moment one more time, Gus takes solace in that and is able to walk offstage, a little taller and a little prouder...
Now every railway station should have a resident cat and it is a very lucky railway station that has Skimbleshanks as its resident cat. Nattily dressed in a waistcoat with a pocket fob watch across his chest, Skimbleshanks gleefully tells us how he ensures that the trains run on time and that they depart safely. He sometimes hitches a ride and can be seen strolling down the aisle of the carriage, cheerfully greeting the passengers as he goes.
MACAVITY!! The fiendish feline mastermind is never far from anyone thoughts and the self-styled Napoleon of Crime makes his entrance. From exit doors in the stalls on either side of the stage, Macavitys henchmen make an appearance, causing a furore as the Jellicle Cats set of in pursuit of them, leaving the coast clear for Macavity to make his entrance. Fierce and proud, with a coat of white and brilliant red in a pattern of jagged stripes, the actor who portrays him must be a trained ballet dancer , as he performs a vigorous series of leaps, spins and entrechats around the stage. Seizing his chance, he grabs hold of the unresisting Old Deuteronomy and manhandles him off stage.
A search is made but no trace can be found of the elder cat. Two of the female cats;Demeter and Bombalurina, launch into another of the shows most well-known songs. Describing Macavity as 'a monster of depravity' and how, 'when the police get to a scene of crime, Macavity's not there'. There is a distinct note of irony as they condemn him for what he's done but there is also an underlying note of admiration for him. Oh well, some women can't resist a rogue...
But what's this? Old Deuteronomy has returned and is making his way back up onto the stage in order to bring the nights events to a head. But the rest of the cats sense that something is wrong. Munkustrap, smelling a rat, rips the shaggy coat off of Old Deuteronomy, revealing a glowering Macavity. The claws are out as Munkustrap and Macavity square up to each other. Whirling around like dervishes in a flurry of claws and teeth, Munkustrap gains the upper hand on Macavity. Sensing defeat, Macavity makes a break for freedom. Grabbing a pair of crocodile clips wired up to the mains, he runs them up and down the chicken wire fence surrounding the junkyard, in a threatening manner, causing sparks to fly and the lights to blow, plunging the stage into darkness and for him to make his escape.
Relieved and not a little frightened by what they had just witnessed, the cats huddle together for comfort, until The Rum Tum Tugger re-appears. To bolster their spirits, he tells them of the magical Mister Mistoffelees, the conjuring cat. Skilled in legerdemain and misdirection, he springs out onto the stage. Quaxo the black and white cat, in his new guise as Mr. Mistoffelees, sets about restoring order and a befuddled Old Deuteronomy to the company of cats. With literally a sprinkling of stardust, he takes centre stage once normality has been restored. A sole spotlight illuminates his upper body as he takes his final bow. With the spotlight beam slowly contracting until it just illuminates his face, he blows a final parting kiss to the audience before he is gone.
The climax of the evening comes as Old Deuteronomy will make his decision as to who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer. All cats wait with bated breath as the hunched and saddened figure of Grizabella shuffles out onto the stage for the last time. Unlike the last time, she is not greeted with hostility but they all draw back a respectful distance as she reprises the song;'Memory' reminiscing on times long gone and a lament to all that was.
Instead of showing scorn and contempt for her, the rest of the Jellicle Cats realise the folly of what they have done in making her an outcast. They close ranks around her, welcoming her back into the fold. At this moment in time, Old Deuteronomy makes his decision.
Grizabella, scarcely able to believe what has happened to her, is further taken aback to find that she is the one who will make the journey to the Heaviside Layer. Overcome with emotion, she makes her tearful farewells to her friends and takes her place at Old Deuteronomys side to await what comes next.
As I have found from watching other musicals, there are certain props that take up a large amount of the budget allotted to them. With Starlight Express, it was the rollerskating track around the auditorium that the locomotives and carriages hurtle around. With Les Miserables, it was the mobile barricades that the radical young French students took shelter behind and could also masquerade as a Parisian slum area. With Cats, it is the large truck tyre at the rear of the stage that Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy stand upon. Fixed to a hydraulic hoist and accompanied by billowing clouds of dry ice, the tyre slowly ascends until it halfway between the stage and the lighting gantry. Upon this point, a literal stairway to heaven descends from the gantry.
Taking a last look around at her friends, she makes the slow climb up the stairway and to a new life. 'Rather you than me', I did think in passing. The tyre on the hydraulic hoist looked sturdy enough but the stairway affixed to the lighting gantry did look rather wobbly. The evenings events finally conclude with the cats rejoicing the fact that the right choice had been made and the right cat had gone on to another life.
The entire cast assemble for the closing number;'The Ad-dressing Of Cats'. As this song point out, despite the fact that Humans and cats occupy diverging branches of the evolutionary tree but happily co-exist with each other, we both share such common traits as affection, compassion and a willingness to forgive. Perhaps we and they are not so different after all...