Schonell Theatre (Ignatians Musical Society)


From T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Amateur production

I can’t understand why Hollywood didn’t snap up Simone de Haas years ago. Director, costume designer, choreographer and producer, she brings her many talents to the stages of Brisbane with a professional flair that makes everything she does appear easy.

But it’s not easy, of course. Her Mixed Company productions were always done on a shoestring budget, yet managed to look totally professional, and when she was approached by the Ignatians Musical Society to direct Cats, apparently her jaw dropped when she heard how little money she had to play with to get this elaborate and demanding musical on stage. Not for her the lavish budget and the transformation of a commercial theatre into an in-the-round rubbish heap, as happened in the original London production. She and designer Scott Bagnell had to make do with cardboard and papier-mache, and leotards for the Jellicle costumes, but with the addition of face-painting skills to match those on display at the Riverside Markets, wigs-a-million teased into bouffants that must have cost half the budget in hair gel and spray, some timely swipes of colour on the leotards and judicious use of foam rubber for paws, they have conjured up another minor miracle, and I defy anyone to find defects in the design.

Cats is one of the world’s favourite musicals, but the rights have only just been released to non-professional companies in Australia. Whether by accident or design, Harvest Rain have also secured the rights, so those who can’t get enough of these ferocious fidgety felines will have another chance to see them in August.

But that’s no reason to miss this production, which brings laughter, amazement and tears in copious quantities, and where you can actually distinguish every word of St Tom Eliot’s immaculate but difficult text. That again is no easy achievement, but everyone, from the distinctive soloists like Grizabella (Alice Barbery) and the over-sexed Rum Tum Tugger (Robert Butterworth at his ebullient best) to the humblest member of the chorus line, belts out their numbers with clarity as well as gusto, all the while performing impossible feats of physicality on the crowded stage.

All our favourites are there, of course – Skimbleshanks (Craig Anderson living up to his character’s name), Brad Ashwood delightfully pompous as Mr Bustopher Jones in spats, the fast-footing Janet Devlin as a tap-dancing Jennyanydots, and John Smiles as Gus the Theatre Cat.

I could mention Dean Prangley (Old Deuteronomy), David Griffiths (Mungojerrie), George Canham (Mr Mistoffelees), Jennifer Ashley and Jessica Havens sharing the roles of Electra and Rumpleteazer, and the off-stage chorus known as The Booth, but if I kept going there’s be no room to mention the big stage numbers such as the almost unbearably cute Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles, or Growltiger’s Last Stand, or the iconic Jellicle Ball.

In fact, even thinking about it again I go all breathless, so what it must be like for the cast of thousands (well, nineteen of them, actually, but it looked as if there were lots more) after five shows a week for a five-week run I shudder to think. That’s where the venerable Dean Prangley as the equally venerable Old Deuteronomy must render up prayers of thanks for a role where all he has to do is stalk majestically around and sit on an over-stuffed sofa-throne.

This is a very good production of a top-rate musical, and even if there’s no real love interest (what do you expect from T.S. Eliot?), and there’s no plot as such, as an all-singing all-dancing riot of colour and movement, you won’t get a better bang for your buck in Brisbane this year. Three cheers for the Ignatians, and an extra cheer-and-a-half for Simone de Haas, without whom this would never have been such a triumph.

Directed by Simone de Haas

Musical Director Harmony Lentz

Choreography Cathy Gunton

Designer Scott Bagnell

Playing until 17 March 2007 – Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Saturday matinee at 2pm, Sunday 25 February and 11 March at 5pm

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 8th February 2007)