Review of King’s Ely Junior’s production of Cats by British actor David Learner
31st March 2017

THIS was no eight out of ten cats. This was ten out of ten cats with a richly deserved and superbly achieved standing ovation from its first night audience that sang to the rafters of the Hayward Theatre.

Ridiculous, the very idea of translating TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into a musical. What could an outdated American history teacher who taught John Betjeman possibly bring to the party? Well he brought Andrew Lloyd Webber and in the late seventies Lloyd Webber’s star was fixed in the firmament following his successes with Joseph, Superstar and Evita. If anyone could evict Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line from its throne in the West End it was Lloyd Webber.

Cats didn’t just evict Hamlisch: it changed musical theatre forever and proved that a single song – in this case Memories – was enough to prove that longevity could be achieved through the power of a handful of notes and the skills and dynamism of performers who lived every second for their audiences.

So it was tonight with a cast of over forty vying for attention in the superb visual geometry of its director Kathryn Sudbury. They were all cats, each and every one of them, and in that golden age of youth when the more pressing cares of education are still just around the next corner the children of the King’s Ely Junior School brought life and love to the trickiest of works.

Look for a plot and you’ll find none. Go searching for a star and they’ll be hard to find. This is an ensemble piece where if a single stitch is dropped by performer or musician or stage manager or lighting technician or costumier or make-up artiste or by any one of the myriad of others – parents, teachers, caterers, helpers, dreamers – then the evening is lost. Tonight it didn’t happen. Tonight was electric.

Who to say well done to? Choreographer Natasha Hobbs perhaps, whose styles ranged from Reservoir Dogs to Hip Hop via Twist and Jitterbug to elicit absolutely the very best out of young dancers who simply shouldn’t, at that age, have such clarity and zest and need. But heck they did.

Musical Director Neil Porter-Thaw maybe. An ensemble of ten sounded as if they could fill the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the musicians’ intensity and brilliance exploded like the royal fireworks.

How about the set designers, recreating that Jellicle Junkyard out of skilfully cut pallets and signage? Yes. Brilliant. The night surrounded the cats and the cats inhabited their world as if they’d been there for ever, each cat allowing their fellow felines enough space to perform and to shine. Magic.

Let’s face it, a show ain’t a show without its actors and in this case the stars of the evening were that enduring, unabashed, out front and loving it company of dancers and performers who held the show together with steel.

Deuteronomy was in the safe hands of Chinwe Madichie, top cat to whom all the others doff their paws; Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, was playfully handled by Richard Garrard; the Mr Mistoffeles of Ella Stevens was dangerous and mysterious, not a cat to tangle with. Benedict Kittoe as Bustopher Jones pierced the heart strings as he sang and my goodness he could sing.

But how to complete the evening? Only to say that every single person on that stage in this wonderful warm night deserved absolutely to be there and to share in the applause. Why do we watch? Why do we perform? Why do we provide an audience? Because we need to: it’s imprinted deep in us. And to see our children carry that baton forward, to share their love for a cracking night out, is to believe that, if only for a couple of hours, everything is right with the world.

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