Entertainment Books

Wednesday 20 November 2019

A chorus (fe)line: backstage at Cats

We meet the cast and crew of the iconic musical 'Cats' ahead of their visit to Dublin

Cast member Ben Palmer getting ready for a performance
Cast member Ben Palmer getting ready for a performance
The junkyard set
Wigs are made from yak hair and each one takes up to 50 hours to make

Laura Kelly-Walsh

'It's not your conventional musical in that it doesn't particularly have a storyline," purrs Rum Tum Tugger, (Oliver Savile) a curious cat. He is, of course, talking about Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of 'Cats'. Every year, on the night of the Jellicle Moon, a clowder of cats gathers in a junk yard and their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Nicholas Pound), chooses one cat to be reborn and live a new life in the Heaviside Layer. As TS Eliot's felines from 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' frolic around the stage, it's apparent 'Cats' might be short on plot, but not on spectacle.

The design, by John Napier, sees the stage decked out as a junkyard, littered with empty cans, tyres and paint pots; and lit up by a backdrop of a full moon. Napier's attention to detail is spectacular; the stage, which takes a day and a half to build, sees cockroaches tapdance out of an oven shrouded in plumes of billowing smoke, their eyes covered with colanders; cats drape themselves everywhere, sneaking out of pipes, crawling through a car boot, and hanging on a bedstead. At one point a giant old boot is dropped from the sky. It's a beautifully decadent show, and truly stunning when in flow.

Alice Redmond applies her make-up.
Alice Redmond applies her make-up.

The cats rely heavily on technology in the show. The cast is in constant communication, via camera, with the musical director, but you don't see the live eight-piece band from the auditorium: "They don't want to spoil the illusion of the junkyard by looking at a tuxedoed band," explains company manager Stephen Diamond. "There's no room in 'Cats' for anything extraneous, it's so regimented, every second is choreographed." And it shows. Cats gambol, stretch and tremble throughout the junk yard to a tightly choreographed musical score. "It's a really tough show, nobody gets a break, even at the interval."

Backstage there are six cats watching the monitors, and reading 'Heat' magazine when they're not singing backing vocals. No click track or any artificial vocals are added. Everything is live. It's obviously part of what makes 'Cats' so extra-special. Notably, the jaded glamourpuss, Grizabella's (Joanna Ampil), emotive rendition of the iconic 'Memory' steals the show.

When asked what the toughest aspect of playing a cat is, Paul Monaghan (Bustopher Jones, Asparagus and Growl Tiger) says: "I know it's sort of ridiculous, but, trying to be a cat, regardless, you're always going to slip into human gestures or human thoughts so it's difficult. Particularly for the dancers, the choreography is so extreme, they have to push their bodies into certain moves and shapes that bodies don't naturally go into, so it's quite tough on the body."

"Your thighs seize up," adds kitten Alicia Beck. "I spend every minute stretching."

Mr Mistoffelees (Joseph Poulton) injured himself and missed the first two weeks of the show. Eighteen of the 22 cats have incredibly demanding roles: "We're all pretending to be animals. You don't have a musical like it, it's so different. As an audience member you get invited in, which a lot of shows don't do," adds the heartbreaker cat, Rum Tug Tugger.

And invite you in they do. I watched at least three unfortunate audience members being ambushed by sharp-clawed cats during the performance as they prowled among the aisles: "It can sometimes be very unnerving for the audience and sometimes be very unnerving for us, because some audience members can be a little bit too eager to participate," adds Paul Monaghan.

Hailing from Drimnagh, Paul (who happens to be Colin Farrell's uncle – Colin's mum Rita is his second-eldest sister) tries to get home once every three months. He came to the UK in 1991 for 'Les Mis' – "it was supposed to be for six months, but I ended up here for two and a half years".

He was last seen in 'Fame' in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre and laments how cost-prohibitive the theatre {industry} is in Ireland at the moment, and how he misses his friends from home.

When asked if there are any dream roles that he'd like to play, he tells me that he'd love to "play the mother in 'Hairspray'".

Wigs master Steve Frizzell is trying to redo the Grizabella wig as he does everyday. It takes 15 minutes, but is left to dry for two and a half hours in an oven. There are 84 wigs, all made of yak hair, and each take about 40/50 hours to make and cost over £1,000 (for every character that has a wig, there are two understudies).

After each show they have to be reset and cleaned. "We go through nearly a litre of acetone a day," says Steve. Wardrobe mistress Trish McAuley tells me it's a fallacy that cats look after themselves as she repositions and irons jockstraps: "The hardest thing about the show is keeping it clean. They get very sweaty – it's a hard-wearing show."

You can see why the show is the longest running ever on Broadway, held the record for a musical in the West End, and entertained more than 300 cities in 26 countries. The performances from the cast are purrfect, the costumes spectacular and the stage design mesmerising. It's a catchy show, and a guaranteed fun night out – whether you're a cat lover or not.

'Cats' will run from August 21 to September 7 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Tickets from €20 are on sale now from Ticketmaster. For more information log on to bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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