Cats is at the Edinburgh Playhouse this week turning that huge stage area into a giant alley of dancing and singing cats as the Jellicle cats meet for the annual moonlit ritual of "the Jellicle choice" to decide which one gets to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back in a new life.
Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot and written for his children, plus other unpublished material, Cats is not only one of the most successful musicals ever, but also one of the most unusual as Andrew Lloyd Webber took the highly unusual steps of writing his music around the existing words of TS Elliot and telling the story in almost non stop dance (choreography by Gillian Lynne) with no human characters. A hugely inspirational and insightful piece of work which few people at the time leading up to its original production in 1981 thought could ever work.
All of our cats in this story are unique in look and temperament, and every one has their own story, but the most memorable ones to many audiences are Bombalurina (Megan Armstrong), Grizabella the former glamour cat (Marianne Benedict), Macavity (Javier Cid), Mr. Mistoffelees (Shiv Rabiheru), Rum Tum Tugger (Marcquelle Ward), Victoria the pure white kitten (Sophia McAvoy) and of course Old Deuteronomy (Kevin Stephen-Jones).
Cats of course has some classic songs including “Macavity” “Mr Mistoffelees” and the now classic musical standard “Memory” for which Marianne Benedict as Grizabella received loud audience applause. Add into that a spectacular set, outstanding choreography and wonderful costumes and it is easy to see why this show has been so popular for so long.
Right from the very beginning you are in for some surprises as cats are roaming throughout all levels of the theatre and the opening scene is spectacular. Once our story starts though you have to be prepared to immerse yourself completely into the magical and unseen to humans world of cats that is being created on stage. This is a fantasy world that with clever set and lighting design breaks down the barriers between audience and performers .
Cats is musically a strange show at times that includes so many styles of music and dance from so many periods into its make-up, and somehow it all works. A few musical numbers have their obvious roots in earlier works like “Jesus Christ Superstar”, some are rooted in classical musical forms and others so carefully constructed around the metre of T. S. Eliot’s written words. There are many elements in this work where you just have to recognise that a genius is at work here.
This show itself is having a bit of second life with some updating for a modern audience that includes a cat with a rapping and break dancing performance complete at the end with almost comedy playing of the bagpipes which you will either love or hate. I am not a great fan of this update as it for me does not fit that well musically with the carefully created soundscape of Cats or blend well dance wise or visually with everything else on stage, but judging from the audience applause, many people loved this little addition to the story.
Cats always blurs that line between dance performance and musical performance and it is at times easy as you get immersed into the cats’ world to overlook just how spectacular the dance choreography is in this show as after a short time is all becomes so “normal”.
This show being set as we approach midnight always has that darker feel to it, but there are some genuinely darker moments to this story too and the inclusion of “Memory” always takes us into those darker feelings of loss and remorse.
Part of the enduring success of the show is of course that it operates on more than one level. What children see in this work is probably far removed from what most adults see, and it was a nice touch at the interval to see Old Deuteronomy meeting and signing autographs for some of the younger members of the audience on stage...a “memory” which I am sure will stay with them for many years to come.
Review by Tom King