REVIEW: CATS (Sunderland Empire) ★★★★

catsSunderland Empire has been creatively transformed into a great big, beautiful rubbish heap for this faithfully resurrected extravaganza. Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Cats”, the poems of TS Eliot, the story is told entirely in song and dance to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Webber has smartly mined the natural music in Eliot’s jaunty rhythms and clever rhyme schemes, applying them to the specific characters of his cats, who live in the shadows but leap into life when the moon is high.

For those not familiar with the story it revolves around an annual Jellicle Ball, and we learn the stories behind the cats as the evening progresses.

John Napier’s spectacular set extends into the orchestra, side walls plastered with detritus from the alley where these unwanted cats live, and up to a ceiling festooned with the twinkling lights of an unreachable heaven far above their heads. David Hersey’s midnight-blue lighting scheme lends magic to the moonlit setting for Heaviside, while those curious cats’ eyes winking at us from out of the velvety darkness add to the mystery.

Marianne Benedict stole the show with her portrayal of Grizabella, the role made famous by Elaine Page. Her voice is strong, faultless and perfect for Memory. Every nuance gave emotion and portrayed real storytelling in her voice – it was a well deserved round of elongated applause when she had finished singing with even a few standing – such was the power of her voice.

There are some standout performances from the rest of the cast, notably Kevin Stephen-Jones’ Old Deuteronomy, whose rich baritone was perfectly suited to the stately grandeur of this character. Joe Henry and Emily Langham are a delightfully nimble and well voiced Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer and Matt Krzan makes a heroic and noble Munkustrap. Equally there are some superb dance performances, most impressively from Shiv Rabheru as the sprightly Mr Mistoffelees, Lee Greenaway’s Skimbleshanks and Javier Cid as the acrobatic villain Macavity. My personal favourite, because it reminded me of my own cat, was Lucinda Shaw’s tap dancing Jennyanydots.

The show’s greatest triumphs are unquestionably to be found during the full ensemble dance routines, with choreography by Gillian Lynne that sweeps the audience up with a blazingly athletic display of leaps, twirls and an almost indecent number of hip thrusts but the real beauty of this production was that there were no passengers; every cat had his or own character and story to tell and this came through strongly. Wherever I looked there was activity and interest without any upstaging of the cat in the spotlight at the time.

A truly magical performance that you’d be mad to miss. At the Empire until Saturday 24 September and on tour around the UK.

Reviewed by Lindsay Sykes
Photo: Alessandro Pinna