The success of the musical Cats doesn’t make any sense at all. Premiered in 1981, the show has little in the way of plot, almost no spoken lines, no human characters, and is based on poems that were already forty years old at the time of its inception. However, as original and current director Trevor Nunn says
We knew that … what we were doing was mad, but we also knew that fortune favours the brave, especially in music theatre where it is literally impossible to predict what will become a hit
Nunn’s latest revival of the play, which is just coming to an end at the London Palladium, is an absolute wonder. The ambition is staggering: performers create a steam train out of ribbon and dustbin lids; acrobats twists and tumble, and during the epic performance of Mister Mistoffeles, the dancer Mark John Richardson spins and spins and spins, all on a stage that is barely large enough to park a Volvo. The risks that the cast take every night are astonishing. There is so much that could go wrong on a set where there is not enough room to swing a cat.
With so many performers who can sing and dance so well, there is still a moment in the show that towers over all the rest. The latest London run features singer Beverley Knight in the role of Grizabella. When Knight sings Memory, she stops time. There was a silence at the end of the song as if the audience couldn’t quite believe what they had heard. It wasn’t just the best singing I’ve ever heard in a musical, it was possibly one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever head anywhere.
Bold staging, wild antics and barn-storming songs go a long way to making a show a success, but there are always T.S Eliot’s poems front and centre. Living in Spain, I was a bit surprised to discover that many people overseas have never heard of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the source of the show.
The poems are an absolute delight, with their snappy rhythms that beg to be read aloud, even when you’re reading them at home alone:
Jellicle Cats come out to-night,
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright —
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.
Re-reading the poems, it’s also clear that a big part of the show’s success is its London setting. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot was a massive anglophile who lived in England almost permanently from 1914 until his death in 1965. Like a lot of emigrees to the Big Smoke, he clearly fell in love with its streets and docks, bobbies, pubs and fog:
Growltiger was a Bravo Cat, who travelled on a barge:
In fact, he was the roughest cat that ever roamed at large.
From Gravesend up to Oxford he pursued his evil aims,
Rejoicing in his title of ‘The Terror of the Thames’.
One famous real-life cat from London’s history gets a nice mention too: Dick Whittington’s Cat. Dick Whittington was the medieval poor boy who travelled to the city with his faithful cat and went on to become the Lord Mayor.
Eliot used to work as a teacher at Highgate School and I like to think that the Old Possum must have wandered down the road towards Archway tube station to see the Whittington Stone. This little cat statue is a memorial to the legendary mayor and as I was standing by it last week, a cabby rolled down his window and shouted at me that we were supposed to stroke him for good luck. What more encouragement do you need?
Witty verse, courageous direction, epic songs, breathtaking performances and a love of place and history all go together to make Cats the spectacular that it is. It should on a longer run on the London stage so more people can enjoy it. What a show!