As a theatre-kid, growing up on the other side of the world in New Zealand was tough. I never got to discover shows by seeing a live performance. Instead I would use dial-up internet (when my parents didn’t want to use the telephone) to research the composers and musicals of the day. Early on I discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, got the CD, DVD and it soon became a favourite. So much so that I printed the lyrics to Skimbleshanks on an OHP projector sheet and insisted my primary school assembly sing it. Yes, I was THAT kid!
Since moving to the UK last April, I have seen a lot of amazing theatre and fulfilled a childhood dream by seeing Cats last Christmas. Upon it’s return to the Palladium this year, I jumped at the chance not only to review one of my favourite shows but also see Beverley Knight as Grizabella. Not having seen Ms Knight in The Bodyguard or Memphis, I was eager to see her in the celebrated musical theatre role.
From the moment the Overture started, I was enthralled. Cats roamed freely around the audience, with big bright inquisitive eyes drawing the audience into their world. Having only seen it on the Cats DVD previously, I was extremely excited to see Gillian Lynne’s original choreography live. I’ve always admired the skill, enthusiasm and energy required to successfully perform the show and the ensemble in this production do not disappoint.
As the production unfolds we learn the names and stories of many of the cats as they gather to celebrate the arrival of their renowned leader Old Deuteronomy. Facilitating and narrating this gathering is one particular cat, Munkustrap. Matt Krzan takes on this charismatic character with ease and poise. His charming, mischievous portrayal of Munkustrap is both fun and fresh. Another stand out performance was Harry Francis’s Mungojerrie. Francis embodied everything Cats represents and I applaud him for his energetic, engaged and fun performance throughout. In Act Two, Paul F Monaghan’s Asparagus gave us tears as the old theatre cat citing, “These modern productions are all very well. But there’s nothing to equal from what I hear tell…” Which leads me onto the new-take of Rum Tum Tugger.
Rum Tum Tugger is one of my favourite numbers in the show. I was somewhat dubious when I learnt that they’d re-imagined it as a modern-day rap number. Essentially the melody was dropped and instead replaced by the lyrics rapped in time with the new beats. Tugger then repeated these verses in modern day colloquialisms. It started out like it’s memorable original, however quickly turned into a hot litter-tray mess. Recently we have seen a successful rise of rap inspired musicals from Lin Manuel-Miranda with Broadway hits Hamilton and In The Heights, currently showing at Kings Cross Theatre. These musicals, aided by their story, successfully merge modern-day rap into a musical theatre setting giving a fresh, heart felt and truly inspiring performance. The rap inspired by Rum Tum Tugger in this production, however does not achieve any of these qualities. The lyrics seem to run together, making the rhymes hard to understand and the overall style doesn’t fit with the rest of the score in anyway. Had this particular Rum Tum Tugger been placed in the original 80’s production, it would have been cutting edge, new and fresh. I understand the desire of the producers to update this production for a new generation, however the number comes across as dated, misplaced and uninspiring turning one of my favourite numbers in the show into the least.
On stage for a short time, the actress who plays Grizabella needs to be utterly captivating. I am very happy to say that Beverly Knight’s performance ticked all the boxes in this respect. From her uncertain first few steps into the gathering, her melancholy remembrance of life as a former glamour cat to her stunning desperate plea for love in Memory, the audience could not draw their eyes from her. You could feel her Grizabella’s pain and Knight’s performance was both sophisticated, gritty and palpable. Her vocal prowess and solid character driven performance gives the audience one of the best Grizabella’s I’ve ever seen and I feel very blessed to have seen her performance in this production.
Overall Cats is truly an uplifting magical show. Filled with humour, eeriness, touching moments and joy throughout. The little boy from New Zealand, sitting in the stalls was thoroughly entertained. Once again fulfilling a childhood dream, tapping away with the songs and loving every minute of Skimbelshanks. Cats is an ageless show and speaks to the sense of wonder you had as a child. Remind yourself of that wonder, let the memory live again and see Cats during it’s London Palladium run this Christmas.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Alessandro Pinna
Cats is playing at the London Palladium until 2 January 2015. Click here to book tickets