Cats is back – again – with a new leading feline: Beverley Knight. Billing her as the “queen of British soul” might be overselling it, but the pop singer has successfully carved a new career for herself in big-budget musicals: she starred in The Bodyguard and then in Memphis. But can her performance as Grizabella live up to the memory of previous star-turns in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical?
One of the most recent was Nicole Scherzinger, in the two-month run Cats enjoyed last winter in the West End – just one example of Grizabella’s nickname, ‘the glamour cat’, being taken literally (another popstrel, Delta Goodrem, is also about to take on the role in the Australian production). Stalking the stage for her own limited season, Knight may not quite match Scherzinger as a sexed-up puss-in-thigh-high-boots – but then, this character was originally meant to be an aging, greying outcast.
Between the heartwrung, soulful voice, big doleful eyes, and occasional snarls of bitterness, Knight effectively suggests this is one pussycat who has failed to land on her feet. And if Knight seems awkward with the physical characterisation – she never really works out what to do with her satin-gloved paws – vocally, we’re in safe hands. “Memory” has become an absolute standard, and she rises to the occasion; a low smokiness eventually gives way to a belting big finish that prompts applause – and the proverbial goosebumps to fully bloom.
Knight may be the new bauble on what is becoming a seasonal treat, but elsewhere Trevor Nunn’s revived production struggles between twin impulses to preserve the original, and update it. Cats has been around for so long – since 1981 – that even if you weren’t around to witness its birth, the songs, stripy catsuits and leaping choreography are background-noise familiar.
And yet… what a deeply odd idea it is: a musical based on TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. A Modernist’s moggy poems for children, weaved into a story of spiritual redemption, told through the medium of song and dance? Only Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, a train competition told through the medium of song and roller-skating, tops it.
But generations of theatre-goers have fallen hard for the Jellicle cats. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t say why – it seems, repeatedly, far too bonkers and whimsical to have ever caught on; all concept, rather than story, romance or character.
The first British musical driven by dance, Gillian Lynne’s balletic, acrobatic, sinuous choreography can feel exhilaratingly inventive, even now, and Lloyd Webber’s propulsive tunes – far beyond “Memory” – reel you in, often irresistibly entertaining.
That said, the instrumentation reeks of the Eighties: cheesy keyboards, echoey drums, power-ballad guitar. As do the costumes, which could seriously use a revamp: all that shiny, shiny skintight lycra and actual sodding legwarmers… You can’t see it fresh; you can only see period cliché. Plus, they really don’t look like cats. I am aware it’s absurd to demand naturalism in a musical about pets, but the flashy exoticism and bog-brush wigs do the technically astonishing performers no feline favours.
Or maybe it’s just as well they’ve not been meddled with – for some attempts to update Cats are howl-inducing. Raunchy rocker Rum Tum Tugger becomes a rapper; not a terrible idea for making it a little more 2015, but sadly the bling-tastic creation feels more 2005. Marcquelle Ward has an appealing cheeky swagger, but the rap isn’t up to much and the breakdancing pretty feeble. If you’re going to update choreography that was cutting-edge in its time, you’d better repeat the trick.
Not that packs of Cats fans are likely to care. The musical proves that the unlikeliest idea can really dig its claws into our collective consciousness.
Cats runs at the London Palladium until 2 January 2016.