Cats – Local Secrets Review – “Purrfect Spine Tingling Performances”

Those Jellicle Cats were on top feline form in this stylish mew-sical, set in a 1930s nightclub, and, wisely, not a furry unitard in sight!

The feline Festival Players made a good job of what is a challenging musical to stage and perform, written by Lloyd-Webber and first performed in 1981. CATS is based on a set of poems by T.S. Elliot, ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, and Lloyd Webber was only allowed (by the Elliot estate) to use the poems in their original form. While a couple of songs, notably the much-covered ‘Memory’, were specially written for it, the musical is really a collection of poems put to music and dance routines, with a very tenuous plot, largely performed by the ensemble. The plot is that the Jellicle Cats assemble for the Jellicle Ball once a year, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy, will choose one of their number to ascend to the Heaviside Layer.

This version started with the Cats coming down through the audience during the overture and launching into ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, which explains to the audience what’s going to happen. With spitting, hissing, purring and preening, there was no doubt that we were in cat territory.

The costuming was great, colourful and original as the company and, in particular Director Suzanne Emerson, had to re-imagine the staging, since the licence forbids copying the iconic original version. Using 30s style dresses and suits for the male cats, with stunning cat make up, the cast were ready to sing and dance their tails off. The set was a speakeasy club, with bar, second storey and was used well in many of the numbers, with cats climbing on the bar and lounging on the balcony.

So, everything in this musical is a challenge, including for the audience trying to work out what’s going on if they are not familiar with the show, and for reviewers, who can’t talk much about the plot, the acting or the leads and have over twenty musical numbers to discuss.

Act 1 started well with the first number, but subsequently the sound volume seemed quite low, especially with over twenty people on stage, and it was hard to pick out words – we’re assuming this was a technical hitch as the harmonies were good.

There were a couple of strong numbers that stood out: ‘Mongojerrie and Rumpleteaser’ was a great routine, performed excellently by two high energy felines, Stephanie Swan and Laurie-Lee McDowell, who continued to stand out throughout. The ‘Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball’ really raised the energy levels and it was easy to pick this out as Chris Cuming’s distinctive choreography.

There were different choreographers for various numbers, the very nature of CATS makes it possible to do this, but the jury is out on whether it’s a good idea – with the style changing in each set it emphasises even more that this is a number of separate routines brought together.

Act 2 kept at the energy levels of the Jellicle Ball and felt much more like it had a ‘real’ storyline. It’s hard to know where to begin since there were so many outstanding performers and numbers.

The nautical set was amazing – great choreography and performances all round, and great costuming for the sea, props were perfect. All the soloists were categorically good singers, especially Georgia Derbyshire and Skimbleshanks, sung superbly by Rosie Wells in another lively number.

Top work by Sarah Monkman as Macavity, superb dancing, agility and cattitude (and her unnamed double!) with choreography by Kirsty Smith, and a brilliant set all round. This was followed by Magical Mr Mistoffelees, played with aplomb by Kristian Turner, with some suitably sparkling magical tricks, followed by the full rendition of Memory. Singing the song we all know, was Cat Nicol as Grizabella. Cat’s vocals in this were spine-tingling, and she stayed firmly in character as the downtrodden Grizabella (several professionals have been criticized for not being able to do this!) as she ascends what looks like a tricky catwalk to the Heaviside Layer. And finally, we had a wonderful song by Old Deuteronomy, Alan Hay, majestic throughout and purrfect rendition of ‘The Ad-Dressing of Cats’.

Overall an evening of categorically strong performances in this unusual mewsical playing at the Mumford Theatre until 16th June.