Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Writer: T S Eliot
Director: David Mallett
Cats is the marmite of musicals, either it will tickle your whiskers or make you hiss at the screen. The controversially bad recent movie hasn’t helped its reputation, so this week Andrew Lloyd Webber’s YouTube channel The Shows Must Go On is screening the 1998 all-star filmed production for just 24-hours in the UK. With over 100,000 viewers tuning-in for the premiere – a significant number for these screenings – it may not make much sense to casual viewers, but it will have plenty of Cats fans purring in delight.
Based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, there is no plot as such, just a gathering of moggies for the annual Jellical Ball after which one will be able to ascend to a kind of kitty heaven where a new life awaits. To earn that place, cats perform their own individual song and dance turns while celebrating with their own kind. But the event is overshadowed by the arrival of Grizabella, an old and tatty cat who makes everyone feel awkward, before the evil Macavity upsets proceedings by stealing the host.
Perhaps more than any aspects of this filmed version the amazing design work by John Napier and Gillian Lynne’s choreography are superb even if you have no idea what is going on from one moment to the next. Napier has created a hyper-real multi-layered junk yard filled with old tyres, broken electronics and cast offs overlooked by the famous Memory moon. Some of the most impressive moments include the creation of a train using bits of the stage during Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat.
Lynne’s choreography is timelessly brilliant, filled with gymnastic and ballet inspired moves with plenty of splits, cartwheels and contortions. The high point is the central Jellical Ball, a lengthy sequence, outstandingly managed by Lynne across the changing tones of Lloyd Webber’s instrumental music that summarises the songs so far. There are so many little stories happening here, rivalries, community, individuality and bid spectacle moments which the camera captures so well, using quick dynamic cuts, close-ups and wide shots in rapid succession to relay the stamina of the artists and the fierce energy of Lynne’s choreography – no wonder Lloyd Webber renamed one of his theatres after her.
As to the show itself, opinions remain polarised and Cats is not a production that induces mild reactions. This filmed version is rarely subtle, everything from costumes, to make-up to sets are skilfully overblown with the odd piece of CGI that 22-years on looks as ropey as Grizabella, while the sheer number of tangentially related songs across two hours may feel like a hard slog. But each minus is a plus for another portion of the audience who adore the fantastical style, the slinky body suits and every personality-filled medley in Lloyd Webber’s anthology approach.
And there’s no denying the quality of the performances with British theatre favourites like John Mills as a cute and vulnerable theatre cat and the sparky John Partridge as contrary feline legend Rum Tum Tugger who gets his own sexy prancing number in Act One and the famous Mr Mistoffelees in the second half. Look out too for one-time Generation Game sidekick Rosemary Ford as Bombalurina whose sings the sultry Macavity duet.
But Cats has always had one song and one performance that has lived beyond its story; Elaine Paige does not disappoint and her version of Memory remains one of the great moments of musical theatre, full of bittersweet longing, regret and a moving loss of hope, a preoccupation with the unfair pain of ageing that puts the character close to Norma Desmond from Lloyd Webber’s later musical of Sunset Boulevard.
Nothing about this film will make you change your preconceptions about this musical, if you love it the quality of the performances and design will only reinforce your admiration, if you hate it then however great the production it will never make sense to you, although the ambitious design and excellent choreography provide plenty of consolation.
Streaming here until 16 May 2020