Nicole Scherzinger, brilliantly cast as Grizabella, is hauntingly feline in lacy silver-grey. This is her West End debut and she is truly catlike as she picks her way carefully through old age in search of her memories. It would not do justice to her technique to say she “belted” her epic number, Memory, in the second half. It was not opera, nor pop. It was pure musical theatre in its evocation, passion and soaring vocal ability. Tears poured down the cheeks of audience members as she landed those top notes and filled this enormous space with passion. This is not just another “celebrity” casting. On this stage, there is little of her X Factor persona, pleasant though that is. There is fine, delicate, raw emotion, precisely like that of a time-ravaged cat on the prowl. It is worth recalling that Scherzinger trained in musical theatre and theatre arts at two top performing arts colleges in the US. Before she achieved fame as Pussycat Dolls pop star and X Factor judge she had served her musical theatre apprenticeship, with credits including Chicago, Guys and Dolls and A Chorus Line.
We don’t see Grizabella after she is chosen to be the one to go to the Heaviside Layer and rises up on the tyre with Old Deuteronomy to be reborn to a new Jellicle Life. I last saw Cats 25 years ago and in moments of rest, like to entertain eschatological doubts about the existence of this place. Technically of course the Heaviside Layer is up there somewhere, a scientific entity, in the upper atmosphere. But does it, as imagined in this musical, truly exist as a kind of cat heaven from which cats bounce back like radio waves, transformed into their younger kittens? Well the answer must be yes, it does, because Rum Tum Tugger has clearly been there, died to his old cat and been born again as a kittenish rapper.
Some have already emitted cat-like wailings at this on Facebook and Twitter. Indeed Antoine Murray-Straughan, making his London West End Theatres debut, seems to wail pretty effectively himself at one point, on something that sounded suspiciously like bagpipes. Could Andrew Lloyd Webber have drawn inspiration for this new characterisation from the songs of saucy cats enjoying a bit of rum tum in his back garden? Murray-Straughan, who trained at Urdang, is a gifted dancer, and Gillian Lynne, who incredibly was 55 when she first choreographed Cats back in 1981, has woven the latest in acro-rap-breakdance into his character along with the more traditional stage and ballet dance, to comical effect. His rap number is catchy and clever. He is more the scawny, devilish wannabe cat waiting cunningly to pounce on your head from next door’s hedge than the lion who rules the pride, or the kitten that thinks it is king of the cats. Overall, this means as a character that while enormous fun to watch, and still pivotal to the plot, he is less dominant. This is to the greater benefit of the whole, allowing others to stand out more. This rejuvenated Cats is more edgy and has beautiful flow, more suited to the modern age, the leading cats more evenly balanced.
I could not help but contrast it with the last show I saw at the Palladium, I Can’t Sing, with its cleverly-imagined puppet dog that nevertheless does dodgy things to itself with its tongue. These dancing, playing and fighting anthropomorphised cats show how the stage, looking out at what must be terrifying row-upon-rows of seats, can better be used, drawing the audience in to the theatre and to the action. The cats contribute to the immersive experience by prowling out into the stalls and dress circle, staring and challenging the audience to blink in the night.
Nicholas Pound, who played Old Deuteronomy at the New London and was still in the company when the show closed in 2002, carried us through with his rich tones. The music, under the direction of Anthony Gabrielle, was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, especially the tail-thumping purr of Dan Czwartos on baritone sax. This is how music must be done if a show is to succeed at this venue. The lighting also, by David Hersey and Howard Eaton, was innovative, from the flashing green cats’ eyes to the power lights and shadows that took us through the Jellicle night. And as for the dancing, well it was simply stunning. I could be wrong but it does seem to be that in the 25 years since seeing it last, there have been such massive steps forward. Besides Laine, Arts Ed, Mountview and Sylvia Young there were young dancers such as Joseph Poulton, of the Royal Ballet School and Northern Ballet, training to a professional standard since the age of seven. We saw some astonishing leaps and bounds, beautiful ballet and jazz technique, aerials, splits, cartwheels, flips of all kinds. If Scherzinger was the top note singer, Poulton’s Magical Mr Mistoffelees was for me, the stunning dance highlight of the show. Beautifully costumed in black studded with sparkling crystals, you could hear the entire audience hold its breath as he performed his intricate, classically-styled solo to utter perfection. There is something about the way a cat moves, where not a single cell of the body, not a single separate hair, is motionless, and yet it is all moves with fluid unity. Perhaps it is something to do with how Lynne has made dancers of such superb technique incorporate this animalistic aspect into their movement that gives Cats its sense of power balancing on the edge of control.
I confess to feeling more than a little nervous about reviewing an institution as venerable as Cats. So many people have passionately held views on how it was, is and should, be done. Thinking about the changes, it is worth recalling that TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which it is based, was itself a departure from the poet’s usual rather more obscure and less conventionally structured poems. He wrote the poems for his godchildren, and his own nickname was Old Possum. It is amusing that it is this small and whimsical work that is the one that made a small fortune for Faber, and has gone on to do the same again for so many in the West End, as it will doubtless do more in the future. For those of us on the other side of the Cats wall, those of us not making the money but wondering whether to spend it to go and see, my advice would be, do, if simply for the sheer wonder and joy the show still has the power to invoke, after all this time, and in this new incarnation. We can only pray to our own deuteronomic powers, should we be able to magic them into life, that once this short run is over, the show comes back to the West End again soon, from its own Jellicle heaven.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
CATS: On just one special night of the year, all Jellicle cats meet at the Jellicle Ball where Old Deuteronomy, their wise and benevolent leader, makes the Jellicle choice and announces which of them will go up to The Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a whole new Jellicle life.
Cats West End cast comprises Cameron Ball (Macavity/Admetus), Kathryn Barnes (Tantomile), Cassie Clare (Cassandra), Ross Finnie (Skimbleshanks), Charlene Ford (Bombalurina), Stevie Hutchinson (Pouncival), Adam Lake (Alonzo), Paul F Monaghan (Bustopher Jones/Asparagus/Growl Tiger), Joel Morris (Carbucketty), Natasha Mould (Jemima), Benjamin Mundy (Coricopat), Antoine Murray-Straughan (Rum Tum Tugger), Joseph Poulton (Quaxo/Mistoffelees), Nicholas Pound (Old Deuteronomy), Sophia Ragavelas (alternate Grizabella), Clare Rickard (Jellylorum/ Griddlebone), Adam Salter (Bill Bailey), Laurie Scarth (Jennyanydots), Nicole Scherzinger (Grizabella), Hannah Kenna Thomas (Victoria/White Cat), Callum Train (Munkustrap), Zizi Strallen (Demeter), Dawn Williams (Rumpleteazer) and Benjamin Yates (Mungojerrie) who are joined by swings Ryan Gover, Barry Haywood, Alice Jane, Grace McKee, Dane Quixall and Libby Watts.
Cats was originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Group Limited.
CATS returns to the London Palladium
Running Time: 2 hours and 16 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 5 years+
From: 23rd October 2015
Booking Until: 2nd January 2016