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 The Theatreguide.London Review

New London Theatre 1981-2002

(Scroll down for a 2001 update review . . .)

Since the combined audiences of all the productions of Cats since 1981 must be approaching the total population of the earth by now, this brief note is offered for the occasional Martian who may find his way to this site, and has not already seen the show three times.

In 1939 usually-dour poet T.S.Eliot published a slim book of light-hearted poems about cats. In 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber set them to music, Trevor Nunn staged them, and neither has had to worry about his pension funds since.

Cats is simply that - a series of unconnected songs and dances about various cats, performed by a stage full of singer-dancers in furry costumes. Something vaguely approximating a plot is provided by imagining that on this night one cat can ascend to Kitty Heaven, and selecting the bedraggled streetwalker cat, who thus gets to sing the show-stopping Memory twice before being lifted to the rafters in what was one of the first of the contemporary megamusical special effects.

Before then there are sprightly or sentimental numbers about such figures as the old theatre cat dreaming about his acting days, or the great criminal cat whose brilliance is shown by the fact that he is never there when a crime is committed.

Sophisticates hate the show, partially because it's so popular. It's a painless introduction to theatre, and gets a lot of first-time audiences, child or adult.

Tourists are drawn to it because, like The Mousetrap, they've heard of it just because it's been running so long. Non-English speakers like it because the spectacle can be enjoyed even if you don't catch all the words.

And of course it has given employment to a couple of generations of theatre dancers and contributed significantly to Britain's balance of payments, which may be part of the reason why he's Lord Lloyd Webber now.

Of course, after almost 20 years, you're not going to see any stars in the show, and it might even be getting a bit shop-worn.

One minor reason to see it in London rather than New York or anywhere else is that it's playing in a converted night club that had an enormous revolving dance floor, so not only the stage but part of the audience rotates during the opening number, leading to the programme note "No one will be admitted while the auditorium is in motion."


Our "update" review . . .

A return visit in November 2001 offers few surprises. The show remains, as it was 20 years ago, pleasant-enough light entertainment for the not-very-discriminating.

The current cast is perky and energetic,though mainly generic: only Chrissie Hammond as a less pathetic and more defiantly dignified Grizabella than most, and John Partridge as a camp-Elvis Rum Tum Tugger make much impression.

Individual singing is good, though all the group singing and recitation is muddied to the point of unintelligibility, so that English speakers in the audience have no particular advantage over the foreigners.

(The audience is now 100 per cent tourists, and the pre-show "No cameras, no recording" announcement is made in six languages.)

Gillian Lynne's choreography is still sharp, particularly in the big Jellicle Ball number, though I was reminded of something I had forgotten from my first visit, when I sat in the balcony - while the show is staged in the round, the dances are all face-front, so those in the cheap seats will see a lot of backs.

My seven-year-old companion enjoyed the show, though she didn't understand everything that was happening, and she was never as enthusiastic or awestruck as I might have hoped.

So the ideal age for a first visit (and the show is a good first theatrical experience for children) might be a couple of years older.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Cats - New London Theatre 1981-2002