Cats Talk Back review

Theatre
3 out of 5 stars
Cats Talk Back Sydney Fringe 2019 supplied
Photograph: Elissa Blake

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Jellicles have their say in this play about one of Broadway's most popular shows

With the agony and the ecstasy of the Cats movie ahead of us and an Australian, Delta Goodrem-led tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical behind us, it’s the perfect time for Sydney Fringe to stage Cats Talk Back.

It’s a simple conceit: you are at a talk with several former cast members of Cats on Broadway. The show, which ran for 18 years (7,845 performances) at the Winter Garden Theatre, was once the longest-running Broadway show ever. It’s now in fourth place. It was eventually booted out of its New York home so Mamma Mia could come in, and none of the panellists appearing at Cats Talk Back have seen it.

In fact, these panellists – loosely modelled on archetypes from the real production – are having a hard time letting go of their Jellicles. Monique (Jodine Muir) was with the show for its full 18-year run and her dancing career has been stalled by the particular feline demands of Bombalurina. Reed (Callum Alexander), a Mungojerrie, misses his Rumpleteazer to the point of breakdown. Bonnie, who played the ensemble kitten Syllabub, is all sunshine and hunger for approval – she had only just gotten into Cats when it closed. Steven (Julian Ramundi), who played Skimbleshanks the Railway cat (they’re on close terms; he calls him Skimble), is an actor’s actor. And Hector (David Woodland), who replaced Terrence Mann as Rum Tum Tugger, is the sleazy, boastful actor of your nightmares. 

They’re all hams, and they all have their moments to shine, though the actors are more hammy in this early performance than they perhaps need to be – the magic of this show lies in its realism, and their performances are more affecting when they’re human-sized and believable.

The fun twist of Cats Talk Back is it way into that realism: it comes through its moderator. The play calls for a respected arts journalist to play the panel facilitator, blurring the lines of fiction and reality. In this Sydney Fringe production, the role is shared by Elissa Blake and Jason Blake – longtime journalists who recently moved from the Sydney Morning Herald to Audrey, their own online Sydney theatre journal. Elissa Blake was the moderator of the show’s first performance, a steadying and bemused presence who creates a world in which these actors playing actors might not be so far removed after all. 

Playwright Bess Wohl relishes in details – little jolts of human connection, often unspoken, that flesh out a story – and director Sahn Millington telegraphs those moments with a keen, though broad eye: you can’t miss the blaring subtext of fraught cast in-fighting or tension. But mostly, what Millington has created is a bubbly, easy-going treat of theatre for your inner musical theatre nerd. No bells, no whistles, just good-humoured jokes about acting, actors and jellicle cats.

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