Cats is a unique musical. You simply can’t discuss it by comparing it with anything else. Arguably, it has the strongest score Andrew Lloyd Webber has ever written and it’s effectively a ballet with dramatic songs. It dances eclectically from music hall to be-bop, to hints of Mendelssohn and Wagner, interspersed with the odd anthem and much more. And you get T.S. Eliot’s slick, funny words, bonded here and there with a bit of clever Richard Stilgoe. It requires terrific dance technique – which tends to mean a youngish cast – and a great deal of imagination. The rights holder, The Really Useful Group stipulates that sets, costume and direction must be different from the original professional production.
No wonder very few amateur companies have, so far, taken on this challenge. West Wickham Operatic Society, however, has tackled it with expertise, talent and aplomb and it’s a fine evening in the theatre by any standards. It pulses with energy from the first note to the last.
Of course, because I saw the show on the opening night there were a few very minor teething problems with radio mics and lighting cues but I’m sure these will be sorted for subsequent performances. Full marks to the company for sailing on though the hiccoughs with unfazed professionalism.
The setting is a derelict 1920s funfair with lots of flashing lights, and, a neat device, silver foil curtains for characters to duck beneath. The costumes – mostly tight fitting lycra suits with long tails at the back and other bits added to personalise each cat – were bought from one of the few amateur companies who’ve done this show and adapted. WWOS designed individual make up for each cast member and they all worked on their own wigs. The result is, visually, as good as I’ve seen anywhere and I think I’ve seen this show performed professionally five times, including with the original cast at London Theatre, Drury Lane which included Brian Blessed, Bonnie Langford, Wayne Sleep and Elaine Paige.
The show itself is, paradoxically, episodic and well as seamless. WWOS sets the tone at the beginning with a big chorus of Jellicle Cats pounding the rhythms. Choreographer Danielle Dowsett is highly skilled at making the very most of the talent she has at her disposal and the company has managed to cast enough young or youngish performers to provide an impressive central dance corps, many of whom also have solo spots because that’s the way this magnificent ensemble piece is structured. On the edges are other dancers who are slightly less agile and/or haven’t had dance training. And I gather from the programme that there’s another group of older WWOS members singing in the wings.
Michael Flanagan and Carrie-Louise Knight are show-stoppingly engaging as the spirited Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, playing off each other and dancing athletically together as a duo. Thomas Fitzgerald delights as the kilt-wearing Skimbleshanks rocking his way to Scotland by train, spitting out every witty word. And Tracy Prizeman gives us a really impassioned, throaty account of Memory before she eventually disappears into the “Heavyside layer” (the flies) in a circus hoop. Justin Jones is strong too as Bustopher Jones with his lovely musical hall-type number
You can’t miss Robert Sharples either. He’s an outstanding professionally-trained dancer. As a black and white cat, he contributes a huge amount to the ensemble and finally comes into his own as the leaping, spiralling Magical Mr Mistoffelees.
Among the older cats, Kevin Hayes is good value as the Elvis-esque, hip-gyrating Rum Tum Tugger and Terry Gauntlett is appealing as the elderly, paw quivering Gus the Theatre Cat. In this version the younger Gus, recalling the play about the Growltiger adventure on the Thames is played – with lots of humour and panache – by Philip Netscher. Kevin Gauntlett, who also directs the show, plays the fatherly Old Deuteronomy and sings his big number The Ad Dressing of Cats with suitable bass gravitas.
I arrived at the theatre wondering what on earth WWOS was going to do about a band for this ambitious show. I needn’t have worried. A ten-piece orchestra, conducted by David Bullen, and out of sight, took the bull by the horns and ran a musical marathon with it. It sounded terrific, with a lot of very clear work by individual instruments especially cello and horn.
We don’t give stars in this publication but if we did my finger would be hovering over a fifth star for this show.