Going to see Cats again after a long time away from the show is always a special, magical experience for me - and it has often been the start of a whole new journey, given that that scenario is what first brought to the stage door and what brought me the unique and beautiful memories and friends I made over the course of the 2013 - 2014 UK & Europe tour of the show. I always tell myself I won't get attached to the new casts, and I always find out I was lying to myself. So to be coming back to the show after so long away, and at my local theatre in Stoke-on-Trent The Regent, the place where I stage doored for the first time, did mean I took in a certain heightened level of magic and nostalgia when I sat down in my second-row-of-the-stalls-end-of-row seat and looked up at the beautiful Cats set that night. Of course, this time was different to all those times before - this time Cats is a different show with changes made to it that completely alter the experience for me and change what I am able to take out of it. But, having said that? I cried. So much. It was a beautiful, wonderful, amazing night and the adrenalin crash from it was hard. That feeling, when the Overture starts is - to quote Trevor Nunn - "indelible" and nothing can quite match the emotion of watching The Jellicle Ball, Mistoffelees, Memory and The Ad-Dressing Of Cats live. And there were definitely some stand-out performers in this cast who really caught my eye and made me smile, and who I took the time to cheer for in the Finale too, of course, taking all the under-appreciated Jellicles by surprise as I always do!
Meeting those three at stage door was another highlight of my night. It will never cease to astound me how much a smiling face in the stalls can mean to performers and my high-definition Cats fan in overload facial expression in the stalls - and of course my big cheers! - had not gone unnoticed by any of them, with all of them thanking me for it and telling me how much it meant to them to see and hear that reaction. I also give extra points to Shiv Rabheru for having the proper Cats fan reaction of "OH!! WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?!" when I mentioned I'd seen Jacob Brent and John Partridge as Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger in the West End way back when!
However, being coldly, cruelly honest? Even though I came away on a cloud, and even though there were many moments of brilliance, the show is not as powerful as it was back in 2014 and some sense of tribe and personality has been lost since the 2014-2015 cast left the roles. And just to be clear, I don't mean that as an insult to this current cast: it is not their fault! They shine as individuals completely, but the changes to the show have shifted the dynamic of the tribe, tone down the opportunity to really personalise the characters and go crazy, sapped some of the humour out of the show and disrupted its flow and its warmth. Audience interaction is down, moments provided for the cast to give those little extra interactions and details have been clamped down, some of the physical and visual comedy, both centre stage and in the background of songs, have been stifled, something which I suspect has been handed down from on high from when the show was in London, as this was an aspect of 'Cats' second life' (as it was so infuriatingly dubbed) I picked up on back then, and it was so noticeable to me as I knew the 2014 cast so well I knew how much more they were beyond capable of putting into the show if they were allowed to.
On a more positive note, I did feel like the changes had been worked on sufficiently since they were first trialled in the Palladium production that some nice new moments could be found in them, and I actually enjoyed the changes a little more than I had done at previous trips to see the show at the Palladium and in Blackpool. I still am not comfortable with them, but they didn't ruin the show for me the same way they had before, and that is a good thing. However, sadly, I do still feel like the show has lost some of its spirit in this new form. I'm still not ok with the new, extended Jennyanydots tap routine: it's too long, there's too much focus on just Jenny rather than the whole beetle tattoo, the humour is gone and it feels neither catlike nor true to the character herself...though as a tap routine? Yes, it's an amazing tap routine, it just has no place in this show or this number.
Marcquelle Ward is by far the best person I have seen take on this new, revised Rum Tum Tugger and he almost - almost - convinced me to like the new Tugger...maybe if I'd never seen the old one, Marcquelle Ward is the absolute best you can get and he is doing the absolute best anyone can with the role as it is now. BUT...Tugger being this different, somehow smaller, less present personality leaves a gaping hole in the show and it makes the whole thing that bit more flat. Before the changes, every night, you could feel the moment the audience caved in and warmed up to the spirit and playfulness of the show - it was the Rum Tum Tugger's number! This larger than life, crazy-fun, rockstar character filled the auditorium and lit up the show, especially when he came into the audience, and his continued presence was always felt in every scene with the moments he was given even in the background of scenes...and, actually, a large part of that was just the costume alone, it was imposing and dramatic and the mane just drew attention. The new costume is not imposing or dramatic, and it's definitely not catlike, and having him being a breakdancing cat means that generally more compact body-type people are playing the role...makes for amazing breakdancing, but it also makes the Tugger less imposing, less of a presence...and yet the changes made to the character did not translate into changes to which numbers he sings or what he does in other characters' songs - the character no longer makes sense, and this dislodges him from the show and dislodges the characters around him as their reactions to him now take a little more to make sense of. The show also never gets that pure spark-to-life moments now until the Jellicle Ball - but that's almost the end of Act One, which is just too long to leave it since the audience will immediately lose that sensation when the interval happens. Tugger's number being changes bring the whole show down a level, and his character being changed brings the whole character of the tribe - and the personalities within it - down a level as they have to be subdued to give this new version of the Tugger any chance of seeming different.
The improvement comes largely from the return of humour to it - the cast have clearly been allowed to breathe a little bit more life and colour into it now than previous casts were allowed to and the number is much better for it - it feels faster and brighter than before and does a little bit of a better job of waking up the audience from the post-interval haze, even if it still doesn't achieve it quite as effectively as the old version did. I'm not a fan of the return of the aria, but I know that the aria v. Billy McCaw debate was raging long before the 'second life' changes between fans and it is a whole can of worms I won't be opening because I don't think there's a solution out there that will ever please everybody!
Make-up and costume changes - as well as marketing changes in the colour brochures - all indicate that terrible trend infecting more and more of the theatre: the idea of there being STARS and then everyone else who you shouldn't worry about sat at the back. And I'm not talking about the obvious costume changes (for example Grizabella, which I still loathe and think is so un-cat-like and so not graceful or intriguing but just kind of a mess. YUCK.) but more subtle things, alterations to the amount of colour, vibrancy and detail in characters' make-up and costumes, the dulling down of their individual patterns in favour of darker, more same-y matching shades of brown and black and beige whilst the 'star' characters are pushed forwards in terms of colour a little more but also in terms of having more lines or moments or more prominent positions on stage where previously those lines/movements/moments were shared over a greater number of characters, to the point where characters such as Cassandra and Tantomile and Coricopat - and even Jemima - almost felt like they were being pushed right out of the picture altogether at times, to me at least. Everything is muted and held back and toned down for the 'small' characters now in what seems to be an attempt to make them a homogeneous blob in order to point audiences towards 'who they should be looking at' and to give the audience a hint of who the 'stars' are and who they're 'supposed' to be watching and caring about, again taking away that special thing Cats had where any cat could be a star to anyone in an audience just by having one moment which they did something fun with, With that in mind, it's a small miracle the show still allows everyone their own bow at the end! Even the change I mentioned to Jennyanydots' solo seems to be aiming to stamp out individuality and the sense of this crazy tribe of different individuals who come together and match up only really when they're dancing, and the removal of a lot of the show's humorous moments is part of this too. It's sad and it's wrong and it drives me crazy. Cats was always set apart by the fact it had no such thing as a clear-cut star, but ALW and co. clearly don't care about that aspect, clearly favourite a more tacky, in-your-face approach.
Cats is still a unique, beautiful show. It still creates magic. And although this trip may not have started off any grand journeys, it did at least perhaps help me make a little peace with the new version of the show and it brought back the joy and love I have for the show, reminding me what it is truly about and what it's truly capable of making you feel, changes or no changes. This show has a piece of my soul and it sets it alight every time I watch it - there is no show on earth that can immerse you the way Cats can and no show on earth quite as magical as it is. So if you do see it - and if you're like me and worried about the changes - my advice would be to do what I did that night and just...let it go, just ignore that voice in your head saying it's ruined, immerse yourself in it and let yourself be transported to the world of the Jellicles again. It's still got it, you just have to let it take you and not let the changes throw off that feeling of being invited into the Jellicles' secret, magical world.