Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron MacKintosh got the cream in 1981 when their adaptation of T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" arched its back and took to the stage. Having earned its stripes and place as one of the longest running musical successes, a new production is back on the road which still bears all of wonders and woes of this feline theatrical piece.
Here, Lloyd Webber's score is both epic and playful, if not necessarily memorable, full of both the pathos of the adult world and the merriment of childhood.This is the primordial ooze of Lloyd Webber's later work: in Grizabella's portentous stare, we can see the light of Norma Desmond's white face in the darkness; in the controlled chaos of the rubbish heap, we can see the ruined splendour of the Phantom's opera house.
The plot is just as baffling as it was in the eighties. The twenty six cats of the chorus meet to have a party... I think. They are going to decide which cat should be given the chance to go to reborn via a trip to "the heavyside layer" (which is probably a euphemism for getting hit by a car and moving on to the next of the nine lives). Yeah, that's it...
Anyway, a fat cat gets kidnapped by a bad cat and everyone is sad for a moment. And then the fat cat gets brought back by a magic cat who does the splits in the air. Then the Elaine Paige cat in the fur coat gets picked to be reborn and goes up on a platform after singing that song that Streisand does really well. And then they all sing a song about how we should all treat our cats with dignity and respect and, perhaps, buy them a cheeky little can of Whiskas once in a while.
Simplistic as it sounds, this is about as deep as things get in terms of storytelling. In terms of narrative, Cats is as flat as a cat in the middle of a motorway. It is a challenge to keep up with lyrically and there are moments when audience members are advised to simply surrender to the spectacle.
It is not until Grizabella the glamour cat tramples onto the stage with her knee socks at her ankles that there seems to develop any sense of pathos, any sense of mystery, drama or intrigue. Indeed, one cannot help but feel that Lloyd Webber should write a musical where Grizabella staggers onto the stage with a bottle of gin, sits down on an upturned KFC bargain bucket and starts to tell the story of how the old girl went from classy to trashy.
But lets not let Cats be dogged by the narrative necessity of stringing together a collection of disparate poems. Cats is much more conceptual than intellectual, driven by the theatre of the eye, not of the mind; it's more about the spectacle of the movement, the play of light on a pile of rubbish and its engagement with the audience. And it is in its creativity and vision that beats is the true heart and art of Cats.
Gillian Lynne's choreography of cakewalks and charlestons remains a master class in movement after over thirty years, impeccably observed and realised. John Napier's set and costume design is amongst the most inventive and exciting in musical theatre, working beautifully with Lynne's choreography and David Hersey's lighting to create a piece of dance theatre which is both impressive and immersive.
And that vision could not be realised without the talented tabbies of the Cats cast, an incredibly energetic and effervescent collective of animals who are so incredibly absorbed in their roles that they probably hack up fur balls after each performance. They could not be more interested in the crowd if audience members were coyly dangling cat nip and the sequences where they gambol into the auditorium are as delightful as they are terrifying.
Despite its storytelling weaknesses and at times stagey tone, Cats is an enjoyable and exciting piece of dance theatre which remains revolutionary. And if you're reading, Lord Lloyd Webber, I look forward to seeing "Waiting for Grizabella: The Untold Story of a Glamour Cat".
Cats is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until the 3rd of March, 2013.