Last night saw the final instalment of Andrew Lloyd Webbers weekly streaming series 'The Shows Must Go On'. Over the weeks we saw the best... and the worst of him. I think By Jeeves will haunt our nightmares for years to come. There was only one way to end the series - with the Marmite musical that is Cats.
This is going to be a review of two halves. First, I'm going to talk about Cats as a musical and my own personal history with it (No, I never played Mistoffelees and yes, I am bitter about it). Then I'm going to delve in to talking specifically about this production shown online yesterday. Spoiler alert: There's going to be an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist halfway through so get your popcorn and your Whiskas ready, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
I first saw Cats for the first time in 2014 with the West end revival at the Palladium. To say I hated it was an understatement. My favourite part was seeing Nicole Scherzinger's bodyguard come out into the audience every time she was on stage then disappear again when she wasn't - as if she was in danger of people jumping up on stage and demanding she sing 'Don't cha' with them.
I vowed never to see the show again...
Then... I saw it again. A year later one of my favourite people joined the cast so I had to see it again. I didn't enjoy it any more second time around. And then there was the movie. The worst thing to ever be committed to screen and I've seen Mariah Carey's 'Glitter' (Side note: Watch Glitter drunk. It's amazing)
So why do I dislike Cats so much? I like my musicals to have some substance. I don't necessarily need people storming the barricades screaming of revolution, I just need something. And to me, Cats had nothing. The plot is non existent "This cats name is thingybob and this is his personality, this cats name is whatchamacallit and he has a prolapsed anus". I need something more than that in a show. Not much, just SOMETHING. Sitting in the theatre twice, losing the will to live both times, I cited this as the worst show I'd ever seen (An achievement considering I saw Viva Forever and I Can't Sing)
But something strange happened when watching this 1998 production last night. I found myself... enjoying it!
Maybe it was the fact I wasn't sat in the theatre but I found a whole new appreciation for this show watching it yesterday. First, I have to state the obvious - this production is so much better than the 2014 revival, it leaves that one buried in the kitty litter.
I knew the revival took some artistic licence in changes they made but I could see for myself watching this. The costumes were noticeably better than they were when I saw it, and the staging was incredible. I never thought I'd shed a tear at Cats (apart from tears of joy that it was over) but Grizabella's exit was so beautiful, it was moving.
The late and legendary Gillian Lynne's iconic choreography can't be truly appreciated if you are sitting at the front of the stalls like I was but seeing it unfold from the comfort of my home was a sight to behold. The choreography truly is the best thing about this show. When you give up with the lost cause of trying to find a plot, it is actually watchable. It has to be said as well that this production is filmed beautifully. Filmed on stage at the Adelphi theatre over 18 days, this unique staging of the show really takes you in to the action and leaves last years movie adaptation in the dust.
One of the reasons why this production is so good is the jewel in its crown - Elaine Paige.
There are few things you will see as flawless and spine-tingling as Elaine Paige's rendition of 'Memory'. Filled with emotion and the stunning voice we all know and love, this was the best version of the song I had heard. 'Memory' remains one of the greatest musical theatre songs of all time and the best thing Cats has to offer. I think my disappointment with the show when I saw it for the first time was the fact no other song could hold a candle to 'Memory' - I found the rest of them to be ironically forgettable.
So why did I enjoy this version so much compared to when I saw it in the theatre?
- Maybe lockdown taking away my regular trips to the theatre has made me appreciate all shows more, whether I love them or loathe them
- Maybe it's the fact this followed By Jeeves. Where I previously thought this was Andrew Lloyd Webbers worst show, that title had already been succeeded before I had watched that. He clearly knew what he was doing putting that one on first.
- Maybe it is because the 2019 movie was so unbearably awful, anything else will always seem amazing compared to it? Similarly, maybe it was because James Corden was nowhere to be seen to ruin anything he puts his name to.
- Maybe it was because I wasn't sat in the theatre feeling like I was being punished by watching giant Cats on the stage and knew I was free to switch off at anytime? Or maybe it was because this version chops a whopping 40 minutes off the stage shows runtime.
I think the most likely explanation is how good a production this was. That is a testament to the power of a good production. It takes an incredible show to survive a bad production.
Whatever it was, I inexplicably found myself enjoying it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to buy my own Grizabella costume and stride down a catwalk screeching Memory at anybody who tells me they prefer dogs, but I'm also not going to scratch the eyes out of anyone who tells me this isn't the worst thing that has ever hit the West end stage.
I always say that the beauty of theatre is how subjective it is. One persons trash is another persons treasure but in this case, it really proves how even one persons opinion can change on the same show. Maybe I'm just fickle?
Cats is only available at youtube.com/theshowsmustgoon or via the direct link below until 7pm tonight so be quick! Failing that, it is being shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 17th May at 8pm and again on Saturday 23rd May.
And that's it for Andrew Lloyd Webbers weekly streams. Next up will be a weekly series focused on the many hit musicals of Harry Hill...