“What happens when you’re falling for someone but don’t share their beliefs? Does love stand a chance?” proclaims the promotional bumf for the show, before waffling on about Romantic poets, scientific theories, lust and polar opposites. All well and good, but that doesn’t prepare you for just how esoteric and downright strange Killing The Cat actually is, as it pits science against religion, head against heart and pragmatism against feeling in the contrived story of divorced best-selling American author Maggie (Madalena Alberto) beginning a tentative romance with a hunky cult-leading Australian (Tim Rogers) following a chance encounter at a Tuscan greengrocer: she only went in there for a cabbage but ends up leaving with a soppy grin and a carrier bag full of other veg, including a very phallic aubergine.
Preposterous though it is, most of act one is pretty entertaining, like a slightly precious mash-up of rom-com and chamber opera, elevated immeasurably by Alberto’s wonderfully accomplished central turn. It’s refreshing to see a musical theatre heroine outside of Sondheim who is mature, intelligent and self-possessed, and Alberto invests her with wit, warmth and a thrilling singing voice. The show’s wheels come off though when the ideological battles between Maggie and Rogers’s laddish but sensitive Luke really kick into gear. She has become successful off the back of a book she wrote espousing the opinion that humans, and their feelings, are essentially a highly sophisticated series of chemical reactions, which is totally anathema to him, who doesn’t at first realise exactly who the beautiful visitor he’s been squiring around Livorno actually is.
When the penny does drop, the result is a series of musical temper tantrums and hand-wringing emoting around the apparently insurmountable differences in their respective ideologies, that doesn’t so much entertain as bludgeon a bewildered audience into something like submission. The plot is pretty much abandoned in favour of wearisome existential navel gazing and ideological angst. For all the beauty of the music (Schmidt has arranged his own work and the results are often shimmeringly lovely), the lyrics are pretty dire, full of banal rhymes and risible similes, and it all becomes a bit of a slog, despite the stellar talent involved. There’s not much of a story here but what there is just doesn’t feel like one that needs to be told musically (the piece is probably about 75 per cent sung-through) and lyrics like “let me go back to my empirical fortress” don’t help its case.
The score is made up more of snatches, scraps and airs of music rather than conventional full numbers, and there are few opportunities for the audience to applaud until the end of the show, which further makes Killing The Cat feel nearer in tone to modern opera than regular musical theatre. There is however a haunting full company chorale, “On Such A Full Sea”, near the end of the show, and the best, and most complete, song goes to a supporting character: “All The Dead Poets”, sung with clarion grace and melting sweetness by Molly Lynch’s delightfully kookie Heather, a young Irish woman convinced that deceased authors are talking to her. In an inspired touch, director Jenny Eastop has it that, of the five performers, only Lynch interacts with the trio of musicians onstage, as though they’re a physical manifestation of the voices in Heather’s head.
Lynch is a luminous presence, perfectly matched by Joaquin Pedro Valdes, emoting exquisitely as an intense but likeable young man in the midst of an existential crisis. Kluane Saunders fields a rangy, attractive voice in the dual roles of Maggie’s wing woman and Luke’s straight-talking sister, who inexplicably sounds like a Londoner despite the fact that her brother seems to be Australian. Rogers, a charming, strapping leading man, has the roughest ride out of the five principals, being saddled with a couple of eye-rollingly misconceived songs and the unenviable task of being manhandled by a trio of comedy surgeons in a manically weird production number called “The Chemical Brain” that, judging from the expressions on the faces of the audience members near me, would appear to be Killing The Cat‘s very own “Springtime For Hitler”. Rogers does a terrific job of selling iffy material.
Georgia Morse’s expressive cello playing is almost a show in itself, and Billy Bullivant on keys and Robert Jane on drums are just as much a part of the performance as the actors. Schmidt’s music is sophisticated, tricky, often interesting, and it’s handled beautifully. It’s a shame that Brown’s book and lyrics aren’t at the same level. It all plays out on whitewashed scenery, by Lee Newby, that looks like a cross between a medical clinic and the set for an underfunded revival of Mamma Mia!.
For all its multiple flaws, the efforts of the fine company ensure that Killing The Cat isn’t an awful time in the theatre, but it does feel like a meandering, self-indulgent work-in-progress, and quite some way from being a satisfactory finished product. This production is billed as being “prior to off-Broadway” and one can only hope that a substantial amount of work will be done on the show before the notoriously tough New York critics get to it.