Cats

Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline fantasy based on a TS Eliot poem travels outside of London after 21 years at the top

Andrew Lloyd Webber has a knack for choosing great stories for his musicals. The Bible was a rich source of material for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. The life of Eva Peron provided plenty of plot for Evita. Even Thomas the Tank Engine came up trumps when it came to putting Starlight Express on the rails.

For all of those shows, however, Lloyd Webber needed people like Time Rice and Richard Stillgoe to make the words work. It is a rare thing when a libretto comes ready made, but in the case of his 1981 musical Cats, Lloyd Webber struck gold.

'Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats' doesn’t make it into many Selected Poems volumes of TS Eliot, but this little collection of verse written by Eliot in letters to his godchildren turned it into a global phenomenon in the English composer's hands. Even the poster is now a recognised brand – though I never realised until this week that the pupils in the two cat’s eyes that make the design of the poster are the silhouettes of dancers. Well, better late than never.

There’s another ‘better late than never’ in this for me. I never saw Cats during the 21 years that it ran in the West End. The London show closed in 2002 after almost 9,000 performances, and although it is now available for school and college productions, recent professional productions have been confined to Europe and the Far East. This current UK revival tour began in February 2013 and Belfast’s Grand Opera House is hosting it until November 16.

The set for Cats is, to put it bluntly, rubbish. Literally. The action takes place in what Americans would call a garbage dump. Bits of junked cars, old boxes, unstrung tennis rackets, a discarded oven – detritus of all kinds populates the stage, all of it super-sized to be in scale with the cats, played by an amazingly agile cast of singing, dancing wonder workers.

When the lights go down, you realise that many lights have also gone up, all around the Opera House. Strings and strings of golf ball lights that change colour stretch from the stage all around the auditorium, effectively turning the whole room into the cats’ domain.

This is very apt, as the performers often make their way into and almost onto the audience, making entrances and exits though the auditorium doors or simply taking a song and dance into the crowd. One cat near where I am sitting takes some popcorn from a woman, much to her surprise.

This show is all about movement. Indeed, the scant plot centres on a dance: the Jellicle Ball, a reunion held once a year by the Jellicle Cats, after which one cat is chosen by the leader, Old Deuteronomy, to be re-born. This provides plenty of excuses to introduce us to all the individual cats, in song and dance numbers that emphasise the different personalities among the moggies.

Rum Tum Tugger, Skimbleshanks, Carbuckety, Jennyanydots; they’re all here. Grizabella, who seems to have fallen on hard times, is not initially welcomed by the rest of the feline crowd. She gets to sing 'Memory' – which comes back a few times across the show – an anthem to regret and the passage of time. The rest of the songs are equally compelling, but not as memorable.

This is early Lloyd Webber, from an era when he seemed to be less intent on writing hit tunes and more interested in composing songs that hit their mark without necessarily lodging in the brain. This may be why the music sounds so fresh – you won’t necessarily associate it with the early 1980s, and, in any case, the score mostly serves the movement and vice-versa – the two striking a balance as effectively as a cat on a fence.

The Gillian Lynne choreography, re-created for this production by Chrissie Cartwright, owes much to the Bob-Fossee-esque style of other 80s dance shows, but updated is as demanding as anything you will see on stage today. Many of the performers, including the outstanding Jospeh Poulton as Mistoffelees, trained are trained ballet dancers. Short of going en pointe, they are are as precise in their spins, kicks and extensions as many a ballet corps.

Also rather magical is the singing of this cast, a mix of young and less-than-young performers – an age spread that is gratifying in this age of musical theatre for the popstar generation. There are a great variety of voices here, from bell-like and searing to smoky and jazz-tinged. This is also where Lloyd Webber makes his mark. The songs aren’t easy, they demand huge ranges and phenomenal breath control, when combined with so much movement.

There are also emotional demands to be met: Gus the Theatre Cat (Paul F Monaghan) sings with a voice ravaged by time and pathos, Grizabella (Sophia Ragavelas) manages 'Memory' with a great deal of focus in the low notes, and perhaps just a little too much edge in the upper reaches. The tempo for this is on the quick side, too.

Predominantly this is a text-led, character-based show, and in this the cast excell, drawing a very full Opera House audience into the world of Old Possum’s Practical Cats. At one point, when the cast speaks the verse together, it was a little hard to make out the words. Then, they started to move: off the stage, into the auditorium, up the aisles, still reciting. And when the individual voices went past, the text suddenly takes on the original, intimate magic of the poetry.

Each voice clear – Eliot’s world illuminated – even as those golf ball lights show us the fantastic make-up, wigs and amazing costumes up close. With or without That Song, this is one show that will live on in my memory for a very long time to come.

Cats runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until November 16.