Did Cats really run for 21 years at the New London Theatre and become a global phenomenon, ushering in the era of the megamusical? Seeing it again as it returns to the West End for the first time since the original production closed 12 years ago, it seems odder than ever that this perversely original but slightly weird musical ever caught the public imagination as it clearly did.
It almost feels too abstract to succeed: a succession of dance numbers, set to a series of children's poems by TS Eliot, that tell individual stories about assorted cats, and brings them together for a 'Jellicle ball' at which one of them will be anointed for rebirth to a new life.
Yet this was never a show to invite you to follow a narrative, but rather to wallow in an experience. The original production at the New London Theatre amplified this by creating a fully immersive 360 degree environment, in which the action happened all around you and even part of the auditorium itself revolved (there was famously a declaration in publicity material for the show: 'audience will not be admitted while the auditorium is in motion'). Long before the days of companies like Punchdrunk, here was a commercial show that put you in the heart — and art — of the action.
That's only very vaguely possible now at the London Palladium, where there's some half-hearted prowling of the aisles in the stalls. But designer John Napier has nevertheless upped the scale of his blow-up junkyard playground for cats and sent it climbing over the boxes into the dress circle as well as hung carnival lighting all the way to the rafters, and choreographer Gillian Lynne populates it all with teaming movement.
We recently saw A Chorus Line, Broadway's greatest tribute to its own rank-and-file members who make up the background colour to musicals there, return to London also to this theatre, and it's chastening to contrast the two dance-themed shows. Next to Michael Bennett and Bob Avian's stunningly achieved narrative dances for A Chorus Line, Gillian Lynne's work here is merely energetic and athletic but ultimately repetitive.
But at least Andrew Lloyd Webber's score offers much more melodic variety, and is set to the hypnotisingly witty poetry of TS Eliot to provide its own set of artful stories. There's also, of course, Lloyd Webber's most deadeningly over-familiar song 'Memory', which pop singer Nicole Scherzinger slightly archly but rousingly renders here as a X-Factor style soul belt. It stops the show - or rather the song — with a round of mid-song cheers and applause that amplifies that comparison.
Elsewhere, however, the show's strength remains in its ensemble feeling, and the committed cast here honour this by shining in individual moments in the spotlight but not hogging it elsewhere. There's a lot of swagger as well as sincerity in performances by Nicholas Pound, Paul F Monaghan, Ross Finnie, Joseph Poulton and Zizi Strallen, amongst others.
"Has the show dated since 1981? Aside from some tinny electronic sounds, not really. Is that because it's timeless? I don’t think so. Cats is actually a classy species of panto - fluffy, shiny, just about perfect for this time of year."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The anthropomorphised felines, in their spandex leotards and furry leg warmers, still prowl the aisles and glare in the eyes of the punters but the show, with its trademark junkyard set by John Napier, feels less like a prototype immersive experience and more like a weird through-sung-and-danced revue ..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It is all performed with great commitment, the dancing is excellent and Nunn’s direction gives a diffuse show a carnivalesque unity. But, while Cats is enjoyable in itself, I’m not convinced it led musicals in the right direction."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"While Cats can’t mask the degree to which it’s rooted in the Eighties, it is a genuinely opulent ensemble piece with a surprising undercurrent of surrealism."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"In X Factor jargon, Miss Scherzinger nailed it, her low voice almost gasping with emotion, harmonising briefly with another singer before seizing back her solo and clinching it with lusty, self-discovering power. Meow meow meow!!"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail