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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Palladium


  Ph: Alessandro Pinna

I happened to be at the first night in 1981 of what turned out to be a record-breaking run for Andrew Lloyd Webber's new show. With Cats now curled up in the pantheon of mighty long-running musicals, it is easy to forget just how risky a proposition the show once was. For a start its illustrious lyricist is not Tim Rice, who up until then had been Lloyd Webber's collaborator, but TS Eliot. And even if the illustrious poet's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" is more accessible than much of his work, setting it to music was a genuine leap of the imagination on Lloyd Webber's part.

Trevor Nunn's intimate original production, with a feline cast slinking around the auditorium in skintight cat suits, was the first show at the New London Theatre to feel at home. At The Palladium, however, this revamped version, which reunites the original's creative team, feels like something of an interloper. John Napier's design does its best to make this huge venue feel intimate. What might best be described as objet d'rubbish spills out from the stage and into the stall in an apparent attempt to make us feel as if we are sitting in an urban alley cat's dream home. It is this urban wasteland that serves as a catwalk for Eliot's cat characters.

The are big cats, old cats, fat cats, thin cats; there is a cat with stories of piracy and another with a tale - as opposed to a tail - about living on the railways. In a series of balletic set pieces, each of them gets their moment. But the charm of this low-impact spectacular soon starts to wane. And when Antoine Murray-Straughan's streetwise Rum Tum Tugger body-pops and breakdances across Napier's painterly set, you know that this production worries about something that the original version didn't have to – how to appeal to a new generation. 

Murray-Straughan moves beautifully. But it says something about the age of the creators that they think an art that was actually cool three decades ago is going to pull in the kids. Not that the responsibility for this objective rests on Rum Tum. There is also a glamorous cat – a glamour-puss – whose coat has lost its sheen. She stays aloof from the action most of the time, warily watching the others of her species like a homeless Garbo. Her name is Grizabella, and it is here where Lloyd Webber has come up with another inspired idea, albeit one that this time shows his talents as a producer rather than a composer.

He has cast Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in the role. It was a brilliant marketing ploy. The papers may have been indifferent to the revival of a show that within most people's memory became a semi-permanent fixture in the West End for over 20 years. But in the run-up to this opening night they were full of Scherzinger interviews and articles. The pre-publicity couldn't have been much better, nor the advance booking. Even on press night the theatre was full of teenage Pussycat Doll fans. And when the show calls upon its star to actually perform – with the song "Memory," which must be one of the last chart hits to come from a musical – Scherzinger delivers with power and presence.

Yet unlike Lloyd Webber's Jesus and Joseph shows, Cats is an ensemble piece. It makes no sense to lure in an audience with a star singer who has but one song to sing. Apart from business sense, perhaps. But if I were a teenage fan of Pussycat Dolls, I'd feel terribly shortchanged. What's left is a show that retains some its charm but now feels awfully dated, as if Cats has finally used up every one of its nine lives.


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