Recently, when talking about Cats - and the amazing current London cast - with some family friends I was asked "Why is Carbucketty your favourite?" and it surprised me how hard I had to think about that question. You'd think it'd be an easy answer, something I could sum up quickly and efficiently, but the truth of it is a lot more complicated - not due to a lack of reasons, but due to a plethora of them...and these days? Joel Morris is probably as much a part of the reason as anything. So what does any of this have to do with the title of "Two Years Ago Today"? Well, because it was two years ago today that I saw Joel Morris as Carbucketty for the first time, and it was the beginning a rare phenomenon occurring: I found my My Carbucketty - the ultimate, unbeatable performance of the role...
"Excuse me, were you Carbucketty........?"
I think that, perhaps, in order to understand my anxiety before that show two years ago, you first have to understand just how thoroughly attached to the 2006 tour cast I was - I had never truly recovered from their 2007 cast changes, and seeing a whole new set of performers just felt like a recipe for heartbreak in a way, as dramatic as that may sound. And a large part of that worry was over Carbucketty. You see, Carbucketty wasn't always my out-and-out hands-down favourite. When I was a kid, Quaxo/Mistoffelees pretty much owned my heart - I mean, I was six when I first saw the show and he SPARKLES so come on!! But my point is that, Carbucketty only really began to win me over during the 'wilderness years' - the time between me seeing it in the West End when I was younger and me seeing it live again on tour, when I was watching the video over and over and noticing all the characters in new ways. Carbucketty - or Pouncival as the video labelled him - became more and more interesting to me, and the more interested in the show I became, the more the supposed 'smaller' parts became the ones I saw as crucial to the show as I realised just how much work and character and magic performers put into those roles, how vital they were to the show. When I saw the show on tour in 2003, I was disappointed - I don't know if it was a bad day, the fact it was a matinee or if I had just gone in with unrealistic expectations having only seen it live on the huge New London stage previously, but whatever it was, I didn't single out any characters, not even Carbucketty. No. Carbucketty's real time? The 2006 tour. Kevin McGuire stole my heart in that role - suddenly Carbucketty went from being A favourite to being THE favourite. I still loved Alonzo and the kittens and had a soft spot for Munk and Misto....but Carbucketty was the Jellicle I adored, whose every move I knew and whose personality and quirks made me smile. Even that make-up - I just couldn't think of any other character's make-up as coming close to that cute CB design. Kevin McGuire was the one whose performance really built Carbucketty up for me - and that, you see, was what I was thinking Joel Morris was 'up against'. Two years later and you might think from what I've said that Joel has 'set the new standard' - but no. Joel isn't the standard, Joel just IS: no one can or will compete, he has become My Carbucketty, the one I know no performer can beat and they needn't try - from now on, every performer who plays CB is almost playing an entirely different character, to my mind, because when I think of Carbucketty, I think of all the traits and moments Joel has put into his performances, I think of Joel's abilities as a dancer, the way he does the make-up, the characterisation he has created is the true nature of the character in my head now. Other people can still come along and astound me (Oh, Dane Quixall's CB, classic example!!! Urgh, amazing!!!!) but when I describe CB to others, or think of him or write about him, it will always be about Joel for me. It's hard to explain but it's such a rare phenomenon that I feel I have to try in order to even come close to giving Joel the full credit he deserves.
So what did Joel do? What makes Joel so special? I could pick out so many moments and cute little details or I could tell you again that he's an incredible dancer, I could explain to you every little action and reaction he makes as CB that makes me love him - and Carbucketty too! - even more. But at the real heart of what makes Joel so special is...well, Joel himself. Because Joel is Joel: special is just who he is. I know that's a terrible explanation but I think it's the only way to sum it up. Joel is an amazing person - I have such admiration and awe for him, his work rate and his dedication but also his brightness and sharpness and energy. He's only human: he's a crazy little so and so (I say that with so much love and affection you have no idea!) because he's a perfectionist and he's tightly wound, but that's what makes him the amazing performer that he is. He never gives himself a break, he's not capable of going out on stage and not giving everything he's got to give at that moment I don't think - because if he doesn't he won't forgive himself for it. If anything the stage is where things seem to make the most sense to him - he has total control over his performance out there, can realistically set high standards and meet them in a way the real world doesn't always allow. I have never seen him falter - of the 12 men I have seen play Carbucketty, he is the strongest, definitely in terms of his ballet ability but also, I think, perhaps, in terms of his strength of character too. I don't mean that disparagingly towards those other Carbuckettys, I just mean that Joel is someone truly unique: he's unwavering and determined in a way very few people in the world are capable of being, and there isn't a single moment of the show where he isn't switched on - every interaction, reaction, right down to his always-pointed toes, is thought about and honed and it's just beyond breathtaking and endearing to watch.
"I notice you, I want to say. Even when no one else does, I do. I will."
And all of that is just him on a normal night - I've been lucky enough to see what happens when he pushes himself to his absolute limits and it's just stunning. He's brought me to tears before now, I've just been so overwhelmed. Trying to truly thank him is next to impossible, of course. I find myself in a loop of endless praise, hoping that my words at least come close conveying my very genuine gratitude. So what exactly did I mean at the beginning of this blog when I said I got swept away with Joel's 'beautiful and surprising' journey with the show? Well to tell you that perhaps I should start with the story of the night I first met Joel at the stage door. Anyone who has read my page for Joel on this site will know that the night I first stage doored for Joel was actually the second night I saw the show in Wolverhampton and - Joel probably won't thank me for bringing this up again - it wasn't really going so great at stage door for him at first. Don't get me wrong - I have total sympathy for people who don't stage door for Cats regularly and don't know the show and make-up and characters the way I do, I know it's hard to tell them apart at stage door sometimes and that is totally understandable, but the mistaken identity that night seemed harsh even by Cats stage door standards: Joel came out of the stage door and a woman gasped and stopped him to ask "Oh! Excuse me - were you the White Cat by any chance?" - I swear my heart stopped!! I'd already worked out he was Carbucketty at this point (thank you Joel for being that rare breed of performer who actually resembles their headshot at stage door!) and I felt my stomach just drop at the confusion. Joel managed to tactfully smile and say "The white cat's a....girl...." and the woman explained she saw a smudge of white make-up and one of the cast girls ran off laughing at poor Joel's expense and everyone was about to go on their way when out I jump. I have no idea what Joel thought when I leapt abruptly into his path and went "EXCUSE ME!" somewhat frantically - perhaps his heart dropped and he wondered "what next - am I Bombalurina? Demeter??" but then I got to do that thing I so love doing at stage door and make a performer realise that, actually, someone out there was watching and cared immensely what they had done that night: "Were you Carbucketty?" - those big brown eyes of his went very wide and he gave me one of the best smiles I've ever seen before saying "YES!!" and I got to tell him how Carbucketty is my favourite and it felt so good. I'm not going to lie - I will always get a kick out of being there to make the under-appreciated ones feel appreciated and that's one of the reasons I so love to repeat the story of that night at stage door, because I think it helps form another piece of the puzzle about why I stage door and why Carbucketty is my favourite.
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."
When I went to see the show next in Nottingham, the first phase of cast changes had already happened and I was so happy to find that some of those new people were just as up for stealing my heart as their predecessors had been (yes, hello Cassie Clare and Adam Lake, I adore you both, but this isn't about you right now!) But it was still a bittersweet occasion for me: I thought it was going to be my last time ever seeing Joel as Carbucketty, just at the time when it was starting to become clear he was my favourite ever in the part. I was there for two nights in Nottingham and the first night the new Rum Tum Tugger (Filippo Strocchi) picked me to dance with, making the mistake of asking "Who's your favourite cat?" and even though I'm normally shy, even though I knew the polite thing to do, even though I knew it was ridiculous....I told him "Cabucketty!" - and oh, it was worth it! "Carbucketty she says!!" - I could see Joel smiling behind him and I just grinned unashamedly. The magic was cemented when the two came out of stage door at similar times and Filipo despaired whilst Joel was afforded the opportunity to mock-gloat as Filipo looked at me and just went "Carbucketty?? Really?!?" whilst shaking his head at me. Everything was just starting to reach that magical point in the tour where I can no longer imagine the show any other way...but Joel was about to leave and the following night - my last night seeing Joel as CB before he left the tour - I was so emotional I was practically shaking. Joel put in one of his crazy-next-level performances that night and it sent shivers down my spine; I was in tears before the end of the Jellicle Ball and at the end of the show I blew him a kiss in the Finale and thought my heart was about to burst with gratitude for giving me a performance like that to remember him in the part by. Of course, little did I know there was going to be another twist in the tale...
And yet, I still didn't dare believe it until I finally got to see his gorgeous face in Carbucketty make-up once again. And once I'd seen that, I then proceeded to cry through most of Act One as Joel once more took my breath away as Carbucketty. That night at stage door I just wanted to hug him so tight and thank him a million times over. I was chatting away with a whole group of cast when he appeared - Adam Lake, Cassie Clare, Hannah Kenna Thomas, Ben Mundy...but I saw him, out of the corner of my eye, and I think everyone suddenly realised they no longer had my attention because they parted just perfectly to let him through and I don't think it's physically possible to smile any wider than I did that night as I finally got to give Joel a squeeze again, him asking "Was that a nice surprise?!!" whilst a cluster of my favourite cast members stood around us in a circle going "Awwww" at our little Reunion Special in the middle of the pavement! A nice surprise didn't even begin to describe it - it was magical and amazing and glorious and one of my favourite memories ever - you can't put into words what moments like that mean and just how special it is that the theatre and stage door can throw up these little surprises and memories here and there and take you off guard in the best way possible.
"It's been very rare to have known you, very strange and wonderful."
Joel never ceases to amaze me of course: he saved perhaps his finest performance of all for my final night in Birmingham. I will always think of that as the last performance I saw of the show how I loved it - when I see it in London later this year it will be a different show from what it was that spell-binding, spine-tingling night..though I have every faith in Joel to make the London show beautiful for me. Still, I was floored by his performance that last night in Birmingham. He stole my breath, he made me cry, he stopped my heart and he filled me with all the awe and wonder possible. I was already emotional that night, but watching him dance the way he did, watching him put in a performance like that...I just couldn't believe how lucky I was to be there to see it, how lucky I was to know him and to be able to go to stage door after the show and hug him and thank him and let him know that every move he had made on the stage that night had mattered, so very much. By the end of Act One I was crying so much...good tears, overwhelmed tears, bittersweet tears, grateful tears - the best performers can do that do you, bring every emotion out of you and have you smiling and crying at the same time. The moment the lights went up in the interval I turned to my mum, tears running down my cheeks and I said "Joel is KILLING me" and I was smiling as I said it, even as I had to blink back a fresh wave of tears. Thirteen-and-a-half performances on from that first night in Wolverhampton and he'd done it - he'd met the standard set before him, surpassed it, set his own standard and then smashed through it to become beyond any standard. My Carbucketty. The Ultimate. Two years on from that Wolverhampton night and I am more grateful, more honoured than ever - if you'd have told me, even after I first met him at stage door, that he was going to leave the tour, return to the tour, break my heart, take my breath away, make me cry and then do the whole heart-stealing thing all over again in human form offstage...I probably wouldn't have believed you - it's just such a rare thing for any person to do, even in my beloved Cats, even in the role of Carbucketty. So to return to the question that I started this entry with - "Why is Carbucketty your favourite?": Carbucketty is my favourite for a lot of reasons, but, two years to the day since I first saw Joel Morris play Carbucketty I can safely say there's one more reason to add to the list...thank you Carbucketty for bringing Joel Morris into my world and thank you Joel Morris for being so very you. Just this week, I was at Top Hat's stage door, talking to the delightful Matthew Caputo and he asked me "What would you do if you saw Joel do Misto?" and I said "Probably weep uncontrollably with joy!" - I wasn't lying : to see him dance that Mistoffelees solo might actually make me explode with glee because really...the boy can dance and ohhh, the Mistoffelees solo is so gorgeous when a dancer of Joel's ability performs it!!! But I don't need Joel centre-stage doing the Mistofelees dance routine to know he's a special person, to know he is talented and to appreciate everything he has to give, and honestly I can selfishly appreciate having him play my favourite Jellicle instead. But I know him - onstage and offstage - and the light he has in him is unstoppable, whatever role he's playing. It's that light that made him into My Carbucketty, and two years on from that first performance I went into full of such anxious scepticism, I am delighted to say every worry I had was unfounded! Instead, now I am so happy and proud to know he is the one who got to bring Carbucketty back to the West End - I'm not sure there is anyone more deserving of being able to dance on the Palladium stage. So on that note...Happy Carbuckeversary to me! And anyone on their way to the Palladium before the show closes in April: just keep an eye on Joel Morris, because I promise you, you'll be amazed.
My Theatre Diary