Duo believe Cats has evolved into purr-fect show

The cast of Cats at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, for the summer
The cast of Cats at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, for the summer
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Direct from the London Palladium, it’s got a nice ring to it doesn’t it?

And that’s the claim for this summer’s magical musical, but given the response to its resort run so far - CATS should return to the capital making the claim ‘direct from Blackpool Opera House’.

CATS crew at the Winter Gardens. Cast member Barry Haywood - with Bustopher Jones, one of the character he understaudies

CATS crew at the Winter Gardens. Cast member Barry Haywood - with Bustopher Jones, one of the character he understaudies

For actor Barry Haywood and musical supervisor Graham Hurman it’s a fitting trip out of ‘town’ (theatrical speak for London’s West End), replicating the show’s 1980s’ heritage.

Back in 1989 CATS became one of the first major West End shows to tour the UK, setting off after a six-month stint at the Opera House.

This time round, the musical was revamped before it ran at the iconic Palladium for Christmas, and has once more travelled to Blackpool for the summer.

Graham said the summer season this time felt particularly special, as it replicated Cats’ first regional showing – the first time it had been seen in the UK outside London.

A common comment is ‘it’s lovely, but there’s no story’. The truth of it is that they have enjoyed it, and they wouldn’t have enjoyed it if there really was no story

Graham Hurman

“With it being re-worked and in the London Palladium, it feels right to be doing the same again in coming here,” he said.

And Barry puts its ongoing success down to a certain nostalgia.

“The thing with Cats is it’s such an iconic show, that it’s sort of known everywhere,” he said. “Especially for my generation, people get very nostalgic. You used to hear old folks talking about the war, but now I’m getting old and shows come back there’s a lot of interest as it’s part of people’s history.

“I first moved to London when I was 22, and Cats was in its first year. Now I’m 56 and it’s still here.”

CATS crew at the Winter Gardens. Musical supervisor Graham Hurman at the sound board'.

CATS crew at the Winter Gardens. Musical supervisor Graham Hurman at the sound board'.

As a seasoned professional, he’s been in shows such as Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar in Blackpool, and he’s been with CATS for around 19 years - which certainly makes him a ‘cat who has lived many lives in succession’, as the show’s eponymous felines lament about their leader Old Deuteronomy.

And by that very token, it’s the elder statesman that he understudies, as well as the combined role of Gus the theatre cat and Bustopher Jones the St James Street cat, all characters who’ve had their fair share of their nine lives.

“I have thought about other roles over the years, but I’m thought too old now by the powers that be,” he said.

“But it’s hard to find someone to do them all, and I get on a fair bit as people get ill or have injuries and holidays.

“I don’t sit around either, with nothing to do, I’m backstage singing with the band for every show.

“It’s to supplement what’s on stage, don’t think they’re not all live out there – they are, but it helps keep up the quality of the sound because there’s such a lot of dancing involved.”

And Graham hails its enduring place in musical theatre heirarchy: “You get the phone call to say ‘You’ve got Cats’ and it’s probably a dream come true for any dancer,” he said.

“Without it there probably wouldn’t have been Les Miserables, Phantom Of The Opera, Starlight Express. It broke the mould.”

Barry added: “It was a risk at the time, and I would say that there’s still nothing like it, it still stands on its own.

“It never gets tired, whenever the cast changes there are a lot of very talented people brought in and that keeps the energy.”

Graham joined the CATS family back in 1997 as conductor for the production in Hamburg, Germany, and then the UK 25th anniversary tour in 2005, before returning in 2013 for the UK tour, which went into last year, then the Palladium, now Blackpool – and ‘wherever it goes from here’, with Paris, a Palladium return and another UK tour all in the diary. He was also hands on with the revamping of the music for the Palladium last year, after Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber saw the recent touring production and decided to take it back to London.

But with a 30-plus year history, and the 2013-14 tour bringing in great audiences and reviews, why was there a need to revamp some of the show, I wondered.

“Andrew came to see it on that tour, in Llandudno, and seeing that he has written so much and seen so many things, then to see his work doing so well, with five star reviews 30 years on, he had a brainwave and thought ‘this is coming to town again’ with the opportunity to revisit the score,” Graham explained.

From the musical point of view, Cats may well seem heavily reliant on 1980s’synthesisers, but the tricks of the instrument allowed the show’s unique sound to be created. And like so many trends, whether that be fashion or music, synthesisers are back to the fore today. “Synthesisers were very much Andrew’s [Lloyd Webber] thing, they created the sound of the day,” Graham said. “But the period of that sounding dated has gone and those old analogue synths are back.

“In fact, we added more on going into the London Palladium.

“There’s so much in the music of Cats which adds colour and texture, and that’s what takes you into the world of Cats.”

The changes have seen a major reworking of the Rum Tum Tuggger number, turning the rock star cat of the early Eighties into a thoroughly Noughties street-savvy rapper, and giving Growltiger a jazzy-blues feel – to name just the two most obvious alterations.

“Rum Tum Tugger, when it was written, was a rock star with hints of Elvis,” Graham said. “Andrew went back and thought if it was done again now, it wouldn’t be that character, so it’s a modern take, where so much of the music is classically conceived. But it still fits.

“The rhythms of TS Elliot’s poetry are what attracted Andrew to create Cats in the first place, to set them to music. And some of those rhythms are very, very hard – Skimbleshanks at one point has 13 beats per bar.

“What has been great coming to Blackpool with it now, is taking what we did in London, on a very short space of time after the show being in Tel Aviv, and being able to do more pre-production work on it.”

Where some quarters criticise Cats for it lacking a ‘story’, both Barry and Graham counter this.

“A common comment is ‘it’s lovely, but there’s no story’,” Graham explained. “The truth of it is that they have enjoyed it, and they wouldn’t have enjoyed it if there really was no story.”

As Barry furthers, from the perspective of playing the Cats’ wise leader Old Deuteronomy: “As I get older I love it more. “Without getting too personal, I’m a practising Buddist and it’s a very spiritual character, so I feel he fits me well. He’s a leader and is very wise. People forget Cats was a book of poems, made into a show and that there’s no script.But it’s a real story of redemption and forgiveness.

“Old Deuteronomy knows what’s what from the beginning and we all have to learn from experience what should come from the truth of a situation.

“You can’t be taught but you have to learn.”