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Tuesday, 24 July 2018

REVIEW: Cats at Newcastle Theatre Royal


The Magical World Of Our Feline Friends

Cats
Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Saturday 28th July 2018

Cats the musical. It is Marmite. We happen to love it. No Plot? So what! T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats is a fabulous foundation on which to base a production. The only issue was that in order to get permission to do so, certain stipulations were put in place which limited the way in which Andrew Lloyd Webber could create a musical around it. So there is not much said between the songs and the lyrics of the songs are from Eliot’s original verse. The critics originally hated it, but the public loved it and took it to their hearts resulting in long runs in the West End and Broadway. As a musical, it is different, but it works. And who would want all musicals to follow the same pattern? That would be boring!

Cats is about a tribe called the Jellicle Cats and, after establishing how the cats have a unique tribe name in addition to a human name, we are introduced to a number of cats. Each has their own unique background and quirks. Ultimately the cats are meeting up to decide which cat ascends from the trash pile, which is the basis of the stage set, to start a new life.

One of the first acts highlights was Mungojerrie (Carl Luke) and Rumpleteazer (Bethanie Johnson) as the mischievous cat burglars. On, what was for most of the first act, an otherwise crowded stage, these two cats were given the space to perform some fine choreography. Director and choreographer Sandra Laidler has seemingly worked tirelessly to create numerous routines throughout the show but they were often crowded out by the sheer number of performers on the stage at anyone time. The scale of the production during the dancing scenes was reminiscent of the big RKO Picture Musicals with their large casts all intricately building up to a bigger picture. There was a lot of dancing and singing talent on show.

With such a large show, there are occasionally some difficulties on the first night and the sound was challenging during the first act. The gremlins with the microphones fortunately sorted themselves out for act two.

In act 2, Gus (Dan Greener) is the old theatrical cat who can tell you many tales. This injected a degree of energy into the show and paved the way for Skimbleshanks (James Forster) to lead as the railway cat. This was a number which really benefited from the large dancing ensemble.

My own personal favourite is Mister Mistoffelees (Jack Hindmarch) whose magical dance performance literally goes with a bang. This is the one song I had in my head as I left the theatre and the ensemble did a fabulous job of performing it.

Then comes the big production number. Perhaps there are two camps with this one. I’m no fan of the Elaine Paige version personally – too shouty. No, in my own humble opinion the definitive recorded version is sublime performance by Betty Buckley. Controlled power and emotion is the way I like it… Sorry, I digress, back to this evening’s musical. Tonight JoJo Hatfield absolutely nailed Memory.  She blew me away with the poise, control and emotion. Well done, it was something special.

I won’t spoil the ending, as there are still people out there who have never seen Cats..! But Old Deuteronomy (Ken Allan) finishes off proceedings in style.

This is a huge cast. It isn’t the job of the review to list everyone of the 18 principal cats, 32 ensemble moggies or indeed the 9 very sweet kittens. That is the job of the programme. They worked their tails off and had a part to play in an entertaining evening.

In the extended pit was Liam Gilbert and his 16 musicians. We picked out the tight rhythm section, take a bow Neil Harland, Malcolm Dick and Jonathan Fenwick, plus Paul McArthur on guitar in particular.

We also know there is a huge operation out of sight, behind the scenes… Some of the feedback our reviews have been getting recently, especially on amateur shows, is that the poor production team doesn’t always get a mention.  Yet the makeup, wigs, chaperones, lighting and sound doesn’t happen by magic; not to mention the stage manager who had so much going on at once. This was a big production.

Cats. I liked it before. I still do. Gremlins aside, this show is a tribute to the dedication of creatives, performers and the production team, and it will only get better as the run continues.

Review by Stephen Oliver.
Photos: Noel Harris

Tickets:
Tickets for the Cats, which will run at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal from July 24 – 28, are priced from £12 and available at www.theatreroyal.co.uk.

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