What can anyone say or write about this Musical that hasn't already been said or written about in many different ways before?! If you are a Musicals fan, then you will know this one, and whether you love it or hate it, you'll know it. If you don't know any Musical at all, then you will still surely know what has become one of the most iconic and popular songs to come from the Musical Theatre repertoire ever, being made into cover versions for every conceivable music genre from operatic by Jose Carreras through to Disco (Hi-NRG), and there was even a chart-topping techno version I believe! Of course the song is 'Memory'.

Further, when you are faced with such a heavyweight production team as Trevor Nunn (director), John Napier (designer) and Gillian Lynne (choreographer and associate director); not to mention that the music was written by Lord Lloyd-Webber and the lyrics come from 'Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats' by T.S.Eliot; just where can anyone start to even try to give a fresh and unbiased critique?!!

Look no further - that brave and daring individual is me!

Well actually, I have to be a little bit honest here, and say that I shall not be either fresh or unbiased, simply because I have had a long-time love / hate relationship with this musical. I was lucky enough to see the West End production at The New London Theatre (sadly not the original cast!), and an ex-girlfriend of mine was one of the swings in that London show. Further, I was involved with the first Blackpool production too. And I absolutely adore some of the music, and hate some of the other pieces with a passion, but I shall try to be as objective as possible.

For those of you either lucky or unlucky enough never to have seen this show, then, its premise is simple. It is a through-danced Musical. [As opposed to a ballet which doesn't require the cast to sing or talk, as here - and an opera which doesn't require all the cast to be first class dancers and leap about the stage all the time!] All the cast are cats, and it is the time when a tribe of cats known as the Jellicle Cats all come together to greet their leader, Old Deuteronomy who will make the 'jellicle choice' deciding which cat will ascend into the 'heavyside layer' and be reborn. There is little more to the story than that, and we are presented with various cats and their lifestyles as we go along before the final decision is made.

The actual show hasn't changed much over the years, but the music - like so much of Lloyd-Webber's - has. What was once a lovely song entitled, The Ballad Of Billy MacKaw has been replaced by some very silly non-verbal Mickey-take of an Italian operatic duet; the Mungojerry And Rumpelteazer song has been completely rewritten in a different rhythm which is no where near as good as the original; but the worst thing of all, to my absolute horror, was that the Rum Tum Tugger song has now become an abominable rap! What WAS Lord Lloyd-Webber thinking when he thought that a good idea?!! Once again I come back to the old phrase, 'if the cooker ain't broke, why fix it?!'

And the one song which needs to be cut, never seems to be. If there was ever a song more out of place and incongruous than this, then I have yet to find it. It is (misspelt in the programme) 'The Awefull Battle Of The Pekes And The Pollicles Together With The Marching Songs Of The Pollicle Dogs'.

However, I was present to witness the opening night of this new European Tour of the musical at Manchester's Opera House. I am uncertain why the press were invited to attend the first night - in my opinion this musical needs a few days of preview performances under it's belt first to iron out the obvious creases before opening themselves up to media criticism - however, that was their choice, and as such I can only say that the creases have not, as yet been ironed out!

Crease number one was the music. Ignoring for a moment the terrible orchestrations and re-arrangements of some of the songs, in places it was just simply ear-piercingly Night Club loud, which ruined the dance or song that was happening at that time, and certainly some of the pauses included in the songs by Musical Director Tim Davies were over-indulgent.

The second crease came with the dancing. In the main the choreography was very good. Some new and inventive ideas built within the frame work of the original and I did like most of it. One or two moments jarred when the actions became very un-cat-like, or didn't reflect the lyric, but they were moments. The biggest crease to iron out is that the chorus dancing was never really quite all together in sync. As such it came across as under-rehearsed.

The third crease is directed at the Lighting. There were moments throughout when it seemed that certain lamps were just switched on or off for no other reason than you were trying out a different effect. This was nowhere more apparent than in the Jellicle Cats opening chorus where the LX changes were so obvious and out of place, several people around me remarked on it. This was the first public performance, not the tech run!

In fact the lighting design by Howard Eaton only really came into its own in the final sequence when Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy ascend the tyre and she flies ( brilliantly and expertly done! ) off into the Heavyside Layer. The lovely effect created of small lilac beams on them as they stood on the tyre, balanced against the whites and smoke below for the chorus, was the absolute best effect. What I didn't understand was why the 'flying saucer' of light beams was lowered and lifted during the overture - that served no purpose whatsoever! Further, the reducing of the light to a small ball for Mr. Mistoffelees at the end of his song didn't quite hit the mark either.

The next crease came with the choral speaking. 'The Naming Of Cats' is the only number in the whole show where there is no dancing. It is choral verse speaking at its best - or should be! Once again, it was not all together, and some individual voices could be heard louder than the rest and once or twice there was a single voice out of time. If I am honest, then that was the worst I have ever heard it performed.

The final crease came with the breaking down of the fourth wall. Cats has always traditionally had the cast entering or exiting through the audience and coming amongst us during the reprise of Mr. Mistoffelees to have us clapping along too. In fact the breaking of the fourth wall happens very early on when one of the cats finds an audience member to sing the lines, 'there’s a man over there with a look of surprise...’ I have two problems though with this as it was presented last night. First, when a cat came down from the stage and then had to walk the full length of the stalls before exiting at the back of the auditorium, they chose to stay in character for the first few rows of seats only and then just become human suddenly and walk out. Secondly, and this probably has more to do with the choice of venue than anything else; the stalls commanded all the attention. In other productions I have seen, the circle seats have also had visits from cats. I wasn't seated there, but I certainly wasn't aware of that happening. (If it did, then colpa mia). Also, the constant opening of doors with glaring light behind them on both sides of the auditorium for entrances and exits was very distracting.

Nothing was made either of Macavity appearing throughout the theatre. In other shows the ASMs and / or swings have dressed in identical costumes and appeared at opposite ends of the theatre with split-second timing. Here this was lost with a rather lame appearance in one of the boxes both before and after his song, producing little or no reaction from the audience.

And finally to individual performances. No, I am not going to go through every single cat - but I will mention certain ones for various reasons.

Alonzo {Josh Andrews}. A very tall and imposing actor / dancer, and I really liked his interpretation of this somewhat under-rated and often missed character. He doesn't have any solo, nor is his name mentioned in any lyric, and yet he is omnipresent as a kind of surrogate leader of the Jellicles in the absence of Old Deuteronomy. The one thing that irritated me about his performance though was his 'neutral' stance. Every time he either said something or moved he returned to this most unnatural and un-feline stance. The only way I can describe it is something like a cartoon cowboy getting ready with both hands to pull the guns from his belt for a duel. Most odd.

I really loved Bustopher Jones and the wonderful interpretation of Gus, The Theatre Cat, both played with real relish and delight by Greg Castiglioni. However I really hated his Growltiger sequence. Not his fault, but the pirate ship, the cod pirate accent, the costumes, and the reworked version of the music did absolutely nothing for me.

When approaching some of the parts in this Musical, knowing that the roles were created by now mega-stars of the theatre, Elaine Paige, Wayne Sleep, Brian Blessed to name just three off the top of my head, and stand in the shoes of Sir John Mills, Bonnie Langford or Sarah Brightman must be a little bit frightening but also exciting. How to live up to those iconic performances and yet inject a little of yourself into the role too. It cannot be easy, nay, it ISN'T easy, but I take my hat off straight away to Anita Louise Combe as Grizabella, Shiv Rabheru as Quaxo / Mr. Mistoffelees, and Kevin Stephen-Jones as Old Deuteronomy whose performances were both fresh and familiar at one and the same time. Combe and Stephen-Jones both proving they had wonderful voices, and Rabheru that he could perform what has now become one of the highlights and a staple ingredient of the dancing in the show, 24 consecutive Fouettes-en-tournant. (At least I am assuming there were 24 - I was busy scribbling notes at the time to look up just in time to see the end!)

Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer { Joe Henry and Emily Langham } were very good, as was Victoria, the White Cat, { Sophia McAvoy } and I really liked both the acrobatics of Bill Bailey { Aaron Hunt } and the aloofness of Cassandra { Danielle Cato }. Also, a special mention should be made, that on opening night, an understudy, Megan Armstrong, came up trumps to perform the role of Bombalurina, and she made a lovely job of it!

Finally, and I leave the worst until the last. Only because I absolutely loathed this interpretation and everything about it. I cannot therefore criticise the actor / dancer who portrayed the part. I write of Marcquelle Ward and the role of Rum Tum Tugger. As I have already mentioned, his solo song had been ruined completely, but his costume too was also completely out of place. He simply did not look like a cat! He wore a sleeveless t-shirt with body-painted arms. Bling jewellery around his neck and looked to all intents and purposed like an American Gangsta rapper. Which was obviously the intention - however the costume designer (who seems to have escaped crediting) obviously forgot that he was also a cat!

If you were watching this show for the first time last night, then I can certainly see you coming away full of praise and humming the tunes, there was much to like about the show, and both the directing and choreography were good. Even the never-changing rubbish heap set with the cats' eyes hidden within, and the car boot with the give-away number plate still works and works well, even after seeing the show as many times as I have! However, one thing I will say before signing off is this... These modern productions are all very well, but the originals are better as history will tell...!!

Reviewer: Mark Dee

Reviewed: 2nd February 2016

Images: Previous Productions