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Review: Cats at Sunderland Empire

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Cats Are Very Much Like You

Sunderland Empire
Until Saturday 24th September 2016

Midnight. Not a sound from the pavement.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
It has been a part of the musical scene for over 30 years and yet the magic of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is still there.  The music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, coupled with the fabulous verse, combined with some great dancing add up to a fabulous show that works with both adults and children alike.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
This is unlike any other musical show. There’s not much in the way of a story for example. It is after all a collection of poems set to music with some choreography thrown in for good measure. No wonder those early critics felt it was worth panning. But the audience is cleverer than that, they got it and turned it into one of the most successful musicals of all time.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Rules are there to be broken and so the wonderful orchestra, under musical director Tim Davies, is tucked away in the back somewhere. The orchestra pit is covered over in trash. In fact the whole set looks more like a landfill than a high quality musical. The first indication in John Napier’s design about how the show will operate are the 3 sets of stairs off the stage. These cats will be happy wondering in the stalls as they will be being conventional, walking off the sides of the stage.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Further evidence about how the show will break the fourth wall is included in David Hersey’s lighting design which extends beyond the stage and on to the balcony. The audience feel a part of this show.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Over the 20 or so songs we are given a guided tour of cats. This includes their names and their characteristics.  The real power of the show is the wonderful songs. They are delivered by a large talented ensemble of dancing cats and singing cats. Some, really clever, cats do both.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Choreographer Gillian Lynne and director Trevor Nunn have worked their magic with each of the stories. There has been some updating of the sound of Rum Tum Tugger (Marquelle Ward) which worked well. Another highlight of the first act were Mungojerrie (Joe Henry) and Rumpelteazer (Emily Langham) with their crazy acrobatics and mischief. 

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
The show goes up a gear in the second act with Gus The Theatre Cat (Greg Castiglioni) living through his tales of life on the stage and Skimbleshanks (Lee Greenaway) keeping the night mail train in order. Some flashes announce Macavity (Javier Cid) is in town.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Cats finishes on a high starting with Mr Mistoffelees, the magical cat (James Titchener) performing amazing gymnastics and dancing along to one of the real favourite songs of the set. Of course the big production number is the top-10 hit Memory which has hit the charts thanks to Elaine Paige and Barbara Streisand. In the 2016 version of Cats Marianne Benedict, as Grizabella, performs the song with control and power, rightly resulting in the biggest applause of the evening.  It was more Betty Buckley rather than over-the-top-shouty, and much better for it.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
The show closes with the lovely deep operatic voice of Kevin Stephen-Jones as Old Deuteronomy who was commanding in his role as a leader of the Jellicle Cats. Special mention should go to Matt Krzan as the narrating Munkustrap. He did a wonderful job of holding the show together, especially in the first act.

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Cats remains unique in its format. It still works as it captures our feline friends so well, and of course there’s more than a passing resemblance to human behaviour too.  This lively production retains the magic through its talented cast that sang and danced throughout. Unlike some more recent musicals, it has the memorable songs that will stay with you long after the curtain has come down. Very entertaining.

This review was written by Stephen Oliver the North East Theatre Guide – follow Stephen at @panic_c_button

Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Tickets available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022* or online at*
*Calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your standard network charge. Booking fees may apply to telephone and online bookings

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