WHO ARE they, the hundreds of thousands who materialise in Britain’s theatres whenever Andrew Lloyd Webber’s strange 1981 musical raises a languid paw?
Are they dance fans? Cat lovers? Philosophers intrigued by the show’s interest in themes of mortality and death? Many of them seem to be young; during the interval at the gala opening in Edinburgh of this new touring version of Trevor Nunn’s original production, the foyer was full of little girls wandering around in cat’s-ear headbands, or queueing patiently to have their programmes signed by the lovely Nicholas Pound, who plays the ancient cat leader Old Deuteronomy
Fans or no fans, though, Cats remains the oddest of shows, an eccentric piece of mid-20th century English whimsy – about a gang of cats who meet in a rubbish-filled back alley in the West End for their annual ball – cut with a heavy element of old-school theatrical camp, and lifted from time to time by the sheer brilliance of Gillian Lynne’s choreography, recreated by Chrissie Cartwright. The show’s finest moments come when it confronts the mystical obsession with death that shapes the best Eliot poems, inspiring Lloyd Webber to produce two or three fine, dark songs, including the show’s great ballad Memory.
At two and three-quarter hours, this version of Cats seems long; 32 years on, it could easily lose some of its more embarrassing interludes of camp comedy. At its best, though, the music is beautiful, and the dancing quite dazzling; and although the dying glamour cat Grizabella these days ascends to heaven on a hydraulic platform rather than on a Russell Hotel staircase, there’s still something about her final journey to the heavyside layer that catches the heart, and leaves us wondering after all whether, when we die, we might not return as a cat.