Back in that dizzy summer of 1986 when the young Miss Duncansby and I set about seeing everything in London worth seeing, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T S Eliot combo of Cats was hot on the list. “The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait” was the smug advertising strapline, as it had been around for five years and you still had to book a good four months in advance to get decent seats. So we committed, and went, and our memories are that we really enjoyed it.
Fast forward 27 years to the Milton Keynes Theatre and this current touring production; a Saturday matinee with barely a seat available. When you enter the theatre you realise the set is amazing: the grim detritus of everyday life stuck together to make platforms, rooms, doorways and so on; scraps and rubbish overspill into the seating area; lights suspend all around the auditorium. It’s quite something. When the orchestra starts, hundreds of cats’ eyes blink at you in the dark creating true theatrical magic. At the end of the show, when Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend to the heavens, the stagecraft of their spaceship-like journey is stunning. The music is played strongly and vibrantly; that very recognisable Cats overture that always reminds me of TV sports themes sets you up and gets you ready for a really enjoyable show. Performers start emerging from the darkness, dressed in extraordinary cat costumes and make up, emulating precisely that delicate, wily, determined, languid behaviour of your average domestic moggy, and reminding me of why I’m more of a dog person. They’re great dancers and singers and the whole Prologue sequence is fantastic.
And then something rather strange happens – and I guess this may be controversial. You get presented with a parade of different cats, with musical numbers and dance routines to portray their different characters, but there’s hardly any link between them. Dramatic intensity ebbs away; a sense of aimlessness takes its place. There’s absolutely no connecting narrative between any of the scenes, apart from the occasional sighting of Grizabella slinking on stage, getting attacked by other cats, then slinking back off. You don’t get any sense of progression or plot development. It ends up feeling like a rather sterile episodic contemporary dance where you don’t quite get how the current piece relates to the one before or the one after. Much to our surprise, and disappointment, we both found it a really boring show.
The T S Eliotishness of it all is strangely disturbing too. I love a good bit of Eliot as much as the next man, but I don’t think this works for the stage. Old Possum’s Practical Cats are more or less what you would expect from someone grappling with constructing the Four Quartets on one hand and then writing something for his godchildren on the other. It’s non-contemporary – Bustopher Jones in white spats for goodness sake? It’s pretentious – Jellicle cats and Pollicle dogs? Sadly, it’s also amazingly tedious at times – the whole Gus the Theatre Cat and his Growltiger the pirate sequence had me numb with disbelief. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up and decided that sleep was a more constructive way to spend the afternoon from the Bustopher Jones number to the interval, and then nodded off again early in the second half but fortunately woke up for one of the better scenes, Mr Mistoffelees. I tried hard to stay awake throughout and largely managed it.
It’s a shame because the cast put their heart and soul into this show and give really good performances. There are at least two star turns. Joanna Ampil as Grizabella doesn’t have to do much but what she does is superb, and her two “Memory” sequences are outstanding. I could tell Joseph Poulton was a great dancer in his role as Quaxo but when he becomes Mr Mistoffelees he’s in another sphere – breathtakingly good. Other excellent performances came from Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, breathing life and humour into an otherwise rather tedious character; Melissa James, rather fabulously sexy throughout as Bombalurina; and Oliver Savile was good as the Rum Tum Tugger, even if his make up gave him a slightly off-putting resemblance to the Bruce Forsyth of the 1960s – but then he’s definitely In Charge.
So despite all those extraordinarily good elements I fear this is not the sum of its parts. I’m prepared to accept I’m in the minority as it went down very well with the audience and is, in any case, one of the most successful musicals of all time – so what do I know? It’s touring till January – go see it for yourself.