Playhouse (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on T S Eliot’s


Let me say from the outset that this is a thrilling production. I saw the original Australian production in Sydney in 1985, and I can’t remember laughing out loud at all, can’t remember being excited with that adrenaline rush that a really good stage musical gives you. That was a fine production, of course, in the sense that the choreography, the costumes, the music were all professionally superb, but this present show by Harvest Rain had us hooting with delight, and picking up more of Eliot’s own words than way back then. I can’t imagine any company bettering the intelligence of this version and the sheer energy of all the performances.

Director Tim O’Connor had the brilliant idea of setting it in London during the Blitz in 1940 in the ruins of a bombed theatre, which tied in nicely with the eventual story of Gus the Theatre Cat. The bomb site was not only evocative of a civilisation being destroyed – Eliot’s book was published in 1939 when it was obvious that Europe was falling to the Nazis—but it also provided some wonderful spaces on which the cats could hide and sneak and leap from. As the audience came in, various paws would suddenly emerge, scratch and retreat again, and it was the air raid siren which woke them all up as the performance began. From then on it was non-stop action, colour and sound. Spectacular costumes and set (Josh McIntosh), musical direction (Dale Lingwood), lighting (Toni Smith) – I couldn’t fault them. And what dancers! I’m going to run out of superlatives, particularly when you consider only six weeks for rehearsal and the comparatively small stage that they had to work on. Callum Mansfield’s choreography was tight, imaginative, athletic, with each dancer having a principal’s moment to savour. He himself was a lithe and charismatic Mr Mistoffelees, the Original Conjuring Cat, and the audience were totally entranced with his magic tricks.

It’s difficult to highlight particular numbers because there were such continuity and uniformity of excellence. In the first half I was delighted with Rum Tum Tugger (Wade Colbran-Thomas) as a big tom cat in a bomber jacket who emphasised the individualistic anarchy of Eliot’s cat, with some of Growltiger’s characteristics creeping in there too, but with the most playfully lecherous grins and hip swivelling I’ve seen in a long time, perhaps not since Elvis. In the second half, by contrast, the Railway Cat Skimbleshanks (Conrad Lange) was a perfect timetable cat with the broad PR smile and the neatness of the company man, looking as though he cleaned his teeth at least three times a day and scrubbed his nails before going to work. And there was a wonderful bump and grind routine from Demeter (Alex Feifers) and Bombalurina (Amanda Richardson) as they searched for Macavity the Mystery Cat, the Napoleon of crime. I was a little disappointed in Grizabella (Angel Dormer), although the pathos was still there as she was ostracized by the rest of the Jellicle Cats because of her lurid past. Memory, usually the highlight of the show, was melancholic to the point of inertia, but the lovely voice of Danae Stewart as Jemima in the final duet lifted it to the point where Grizabella’s apotheosis was genuinely moving.

One of my favourites is Gus the Theatre Cat, at his prime in Victorian and Edwardian times who laments what “modern productions” have done to the theatre. Gus once understudied Dick Whittington’s Cat, played in that hoary old Victorian favourite East Lynne, and knew seventy speeches by heart. The gallery once called him back for seven curtain calls, but his greatest triumph was as Firefrorefiddle the Fiend of the Fell. It’s Gus who initiates the explosive theatre sequence of Growltiger’s Last Stand which almost looks as if it’s a parody of Les Mis at times.

This Cats has plenty of these unexpected moments of humour, and it’s in Gus’s part that you can see most clearly Tim O’Connor’s keen sense of theatre and his ability to make fun of theatrical pretension – via Eliot, of course. Old Deuteronomy was also a gem with a superbly resonant voice and a gravitas that made him the still point in the ever-turning world of the Jellicle Cats. Other delights? The diminutive and delicate Kimie Tsukakoshi as the acrobatic Victoria, all in white with blue ribbons, the great voice of Sharon Stoodley as Jennyanydots, and just the stunning look of so many of them from the marmalade cats to the aloof Burmese. Lycra never looked so good.

To paraphrase Eliot himself, I had the experience and I enjoyed the meaning. So how does one go about learning how to address a cat?

Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviar, or Strasburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste –
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

Directed by Tim O’Connor

Playing until 22 September 2007: Wed-Sat 7.30pm; Sat matinee 2pm.

Duration : 2hrs 10mins (including interval 20mins).

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Thu 16th August 2007)