REVIEW: CATS International Tour (Rai Theater) ★★★★

If you asked a room of theatre- goers what their favourite musical was – I doubt many (if any) would say it was CATS. It’s not got the fan-base that so many of the shows that are touring at the moment have. CATS is also one of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s more tame shows, in comparison with ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to name but a couple. CATS was the first show in London that I watched, around 15 years ago, and moments into the overture this time, to say I wasn’t hit with overwhelming nostalgia would be an understatement. In current times, with so many new musicals taking the theatre in the West End and other small venues, it was encouraging to see that CATS hasn’t lost its 80s feel (and synthesized keyboard) – and that the direction of Trevor Nunn is very much still as it was (and although I have been told there have been some minor changes to the show, I challenge you to spot them).

Firstly, it needs to be said that CATS has some of the most beautiful choreography around. Gillian Lynne‘s original dance routines are timeless and stand as strong now as they did when they were created over 35 years ago. It aids the actors to characterise their feline mannerisms with poise, presence and precision. It has to be said also, that this isn’t any usual ensemble, where usually when not dancing, but still on stage, cast members are there to aid scenes with staged laughter, step digs, toe taps or scene changes. Every member on that stage has a clearly thought out character, which they never snap out of. Even when not dancing, the cats can be seen in the background play fighting, sleeping and stretching – and sometimes wandering into the audience, because, let’s be honest, cats will go wherever they want to go and no fourth wall is going to stop them. All the cats also have unique characters, with the exception of twin cats; Coricopat (played by Fletcher Dobinson) and Tantomile (Rebecca Fennelly). Dobinson and Fennely, who is a swing in the show, moved in beautiful symmetry which is such a lovely touch (and reminded me of the Siamese twins in Lady and the Tramp…make of that what you will). Although sadly not with their own song, Dobinson stands out as a performer working every part of that stage – no surprise he’s also one of the dance captains for the show.

With 24 cast members (and 5 swings) this company has a gargantuan task to perform on what appears to be a very small stage for a large company. Although at times it felt like they weren’t dancing as much in unison as perhaps they could, it’s still a spectacle of talent, without the need of a magically appearing mirrored stair case.

Jennyanydots (Ceili O’Connor) has the hard task of performing immediately after the infamous opening Jellicle Ball. O’Connor’s voice and stage presence immediately grab your attention, and even with that cast of 24 – all eyes were certainly on O’Connor, whose feline facial expressions and energy have you enthralled.

It has to be said that if you leave remembering any of the cats’ names, it would most likely Mungojerry or Rumpleteser (or it might have been both). These mischievous two, played by Billy Mahoney and Kirsty Ingram were, in my opinion, perfect casting. With acrobatic moves, comedy, perfect unison whilst sustaining a song; Mahoney and Ingram really wowed the audience in a well-timed ‘pick me up’ moment of Act 1.

Judging by the audience’s reaction, I confidently say that a highlight of Act 2 comes from ‘Gus’ (Asparagus) the Theatre Cat (played by Matt Harrop). Harrop’s characterization and performance of his songs are spell binding, and therefore it was no surprise he had the audience in dead silence apart from the reaction his is cat-camp jokes (it’s a thing). Harrop was accompanied by Jellyorum (Elizabeth Futter), whose voice is one to hear. Futter who has previously been on tour with Wicked (1st cover Glinda) has such grace and flawless vocals, and even though she is really there to support Gus’ scene, she is captivating and subtle in her presence without being forgettable which is mammoth task in itself. Futter also makes up one of the Trio, along with Bomalurina (Sally Frith) and Demeter (Ella Nonini) whose close harmony skills shut down any rumours about CATS just being a dance-strong show.

If you hadn’t been sold already on CATS, perhaps meeting magical Mistofelees will change your mind. Played by the super talented Alex Harrison, this number along with Rum Tum Tugger (Dan Patridge) is jaw dropping. Harrison, who is fresh out of performing as a first soloist with Sarasota Ballet, makes a very glamorous entrance, before seamlessly gliding around the stage, flying through the air and generally giving you everything you’d want from a balletic, magical cat – whilst also hitting cues for piros: if I’m honest, I’m a little bit lost for words – Harrison is a must see.

I’ve held back from mentioning the set thus far. When entering the theatre, its lovely that the stage/scenery is already there to be seen by the audience; an empty dump-turned-playground for the cats. Originally this complex set was made even more breathtaking by having a revolve, which sadly has been scrapped. The backdrop is interesting and everything looks real. There are multiple entrance points for the cast which is exciting. On a personal note, I would have liked to have seen the set used more – cats after-all are very curious. At points it felt like the set was forgotten about and so it became a little dormant.

Other performances to mention are the White Cat/Victoria (Hannah Kenna Thomas), the seductive Rum Tum Tugger (Dan Partridge) whose rock-concert like singing aids the 80s vibe beautifully and Old Deuteronomy (this performance played by swing: Andrew Keelan). Keelam portrayed a very noble and multilayer Deuteronomy, so much so I was saddened to see him run on stage to take his bow on the end, as I was so convinced he was a frail old cat. Alonzo (Lloyd Davis), Bill Bailey (Dean Ambrose), Carbucketty (Nathan Johnson – swing), Cassandra (Katie Deacon), Grizabella (Jenna Lee-James), Jemima (Grace Swaby), Macavity/Admets (Thomas Inge), Munkustrap (Jak Skelly), Skimbleshanks (Peter Cork – swing) complete the cast for this very strong production. I couldn’t finish without pondering how the cast stay in such good shape, without injury whilst touring. I’ve been in Amsterdam 5 days without a gym and already have been almost run down by 8 different cyclists and contemplating booking a second seat on the plane home ‘for comfort’ – so bravo.

A moment to pay tribute to Gillian Lynne who not only choreographed but was also the associate director, who sadly passed away in 2018. CATS has been coined as Lynne’s legacy – and this cast and company should be immensely proud in representing the work of someone so iconic in the Theatre industry.

CATS in on in various locations around the world,and to check on locations near you, head over to their website to find out more. You won’t regret it.

Reviewed by Benjamin Martin


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