Cats will return for Christmas 2015 with a new cast headed by Beverley Knight as Grizabella.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’, which ran for 21 years at the New London Theatre back in the days when people presumably had more money for drugs, is a stupendously weird piece of musical theatre. It’s an almost plot-free variety show based on a very ’80s pretension – an adaptation of a collection of TS Eliot poems – and an unerring sense of the British fondness for felines, face paint and old-fashioned parochial structures.
Updating ‘Cats’ for 2014 via the introduction of a rapper and Nicole thingy off of ‘X Factor’ is a bit like trying to update a Betamax player via the introduction of a rapper and Nicole thingy off of ‘X Factor’: you can’t repurpose with modern signifiers alone.
Nonetheless, this is what Webber and original director Trevor Nunn have done, and in a way, good for them: depressing as it is that we’re forced to turn to the oldies to fill the West End’s largest theatres, it’s good that the creators of ‘Cats’ have made a bit of an effort rather than simply plonking the touring version on the Palladium’s storied stage.
And, actually, the casting of Nicole Scherzinger as Grizabella The Glamour Cat is perfectly justified: all she really has to do is wander round looking sad – admittedly in a rather skimpier outfit than Elaine Paige from the original London cast wore – and occasionally belt out bits of ‘Memory’, the show’s best song, which she does very well. She’ll get a few younger folk through the door and probably win over some older folk besides, but it should be noted that it’s a small role, one turn in a long night of turns.
More problematic is Antoine Murray-Straughan’s Rum Tum Tugger, who is now a rapper, rather than the rocker of old. Drenched in bling and accompanied by writhing lady cats and the sound of scratching vinyl, I suppose, charitably, you could say that he fulfils a similar role to the knowing black stereotypes that crop up in modern pantomimes. Still, pantos tend to have ethnically diverse audiences who are in on the joke; on the overwhelmingly white press night for ‘Cats’, the vibe was all a bit ‘Richard Madeley dressing-up as Ali G’.
But, again, this is only one tiny part of the near-three hour ‘Cats’ juggernaut, which kind of bludgeons you into submission via Gillian Lynne’s aerobic choreography and John Napier’s gorgeous junkyard set and still impressive costumes.
There’s some more odd racial stuff and – the pitiable Grizabella aside – it's a bit hmmm how most of the turns are from male cats, fawned over by nubile female cats. But then there’s something undeniably fascinating about the show’s Victorian nostalgia, its melancholic obsession with ageing and death… and, let’s be honest, its sheer weirdness.
'Cats' is a ridiculous and often trying piece of theatre, but its curio value is undeniable. If your interest is piqued and you’ve not seen it before, you’d be a bit of a pussy not to check it out.
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