Give them the freedom of Leamington. Give them Warwick Castle. Name a park after them. Heck, give them anything they want. Because Leamington and Warwick Musical Society is one the best things this area currently offers the world and its production of Cats is almost ridiculously good.
This is their third absolute knock-out show in a row. The only danger is we’ll start taking this excellence for granted. So instead, let us marvel at what they’ve achieved here.At the best of times, and for any theatre company, Cats is a tough show to stage. It demands a sizeable cast (this production numbers 40) and non-stop dancing; there are no lead characters as such, so the whole ensemble needs to be good at pretty much everything; it requires exquisite costumes and make-up galore; its music is mercurial, shifting and skittering and stalking and prowling and playing like the creatures it describes. This production passes every test with considerable aplomb.
But there’s more to it even than that. The society was forbidden from using the dance moves of the original show. So Hannah Hampson, the society’s choreographer, had to start from scratch. Every step of every song. It’s a simply monumental feat. And it’s even better than it needs to be: there’s ballet, there’s tap, there’s a bowler-hat routine of which Bob Fosse would be proud, all superb in conception and impressive in execution.
There is no getting around the fact that Cats is a strange show. It has no real story as such; it is more a collection of songs with music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on the TS Eliot collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Don’t come looking for narrative arcs, character development and the like.
But there is a reason it became a theatrical phenomenon. Switch off the more analytical parts of the brain and it’s a wildly entertaining thing, with some of Lloyd Webber’s finest tunes in a dizzying array of styles, bringing out the brisk and colourful sharpness of Eliot’s words.
Besides, the musical itself need not be to one’s liking in order to appreciate the production. As we have come to expect, there are performances here that would grace a West End stage: Vicky Holding is all wounded defiance as Grizabella (her Memory is plainly a showstopper but her movement is just as good); Ed Simmons is a lascivious, liquid-hipped Rum Tum Tugger; Aaron Crockford, who’s currently doing his GCSEs for goodness’ sake, is a winningly insouciant Mr Mistofelees; Nelle Cross is sharp and sprightly as ever as Rumpleteazer; Ash Spall’s Asparagus balances pathos and self-pity with great skill. And how wonderful to see certain performers just get better and better year after year, Andrew Thomas among them.
Musical director Matt Flint keeps things rattling along, his versatile orchestra equally adept at the grand and the intimate. Helen Jellicoe’s costume designs are suitably bold and imaginative; the make-up team, led by Sue Kent, has also risen to the immense challenge. And it’s all been brought together by director Stephen Duckham: this is his 32nd production for the society and he seems to be improving wih every year.
There are some for whom ‘amateur’ is an insult. But here we see the best of what that word can mean: ordinary people with extraordinary talent, putting on shows not for money, but for the love of it. The result is a feast of intoxicating exuberance; how lucky we are to have them.
* Cats runs until Saturday April 13. Call 01926 334418 or visit royalspacentreandtownhall.co.uk to book.