Being the longest-running musical ever - on both sides of the Atlantic - is no mean feat. But those composers who covet it may be waiting long into the next century - Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which first opened in London in 1991, shows no signs of relinquishing its title.
And what on earth would happen to the New London Theatre, where Cats has lived since its West End birth, if it ever did? The venue, formerly a TV studio, was specially gutted and rebuilt to showcase the musical and its now famous set of 'Alley Cat' junk and street objects (by John Napier). Despite some wear and tear, the set remains highly atmospheric and, from the moment you enter the theatre, it evokes the magical world of feline frolics which is the setting for the action.
The play, as most people know, is based on T.S. Elliot's Old Possums book of cat poems. In the operatic rock style now synonymous with Lloyd Webber, the whiskered characters leap between lyrical songs via fast tap, ballet and jazz. The talented and energetic cast use all available space in the theatre, crawling around and under the stage and emerging into the audience to draw you in closer to the storyline.
All of the Jellicle cats have gathered for their annual ball which will climax with their leader Old Deuteronomy (Bruce Graham) choosing one cat to be transported into the 'Heavyside layer' and reborn. Despite the performers efforts, the storyline becomes difficult to follow after this. In fact, there is very little of it; we've got an otherworldy situation but not much happening aside from some great hissing and high-kicking. Against this backdrop, we re presented with a barrage of feline character sketches which, interesting though they are, don't always flow coherently.
Each cat tells its own story in song and dance hoping to be Deuteronomy's chosen one - and it's impossible not to choose your own favourite as well from the cast of quirkily named Jellicle pusses. Will it be Rum Tum Tugger (Tee Jaye), Mungojerie (Drew Varley) or perhaps the magical Mr Mistoffelees (Fergus Logan)? Finally, attention settles on Grizabella, the former glamour cat (Stephanie Lawrence) who longs for lost beauty and youth. She tells her sad story in the now famous ballad “Memory” which still cracks with emotion.
On the surface, Cats still has everything going for it. Fantastic set, dizzying choreography (by Gillian Lynn), huge and talented cast, world famous songs. But 17 years on the trot will take its toll on anything. If you haven't managed yet to see Cats, by all means do, but don't be surprised if it doesn t quite match your expectations.
Thirza Stainthorp, October 1997