Centrestage Productions Youth Theatre [CPYT]     The Point, Eastleigh Anne Waggott

   15 February 2023

The theatre experience is a very subjective one, often coming down to personal taste as much as the ability of the cast and production team. So first off, I have a confession to make, a disclaimer if you will; of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (and I do enjoy an ALW musical!), Cats is probably my least favourite. I’ve seen a number of productions over the years, unsuccessfully searching to discover its undeniable appeal for so many people, and been left with the impression that the show is no more than a collection of songs and dance numbers strung together without much of a story to speak of. Maybe it’s because I much prefer dogs to cats, but I’ve simply never understood its fascination.

However, …

CPYT may just have converted me! Based on a collection of poems by T S Eliot, the music is as challenging for the excellent band as it is for such young enthusiastic voices. As there is no dialogue at all, it can be equally testing for the audience to make sense of what is happening, unless done well. With a cast of almost 60 youngsters, it would be so easy for this show to disintegrate into something resembling herding cats rather than a successful stage production.

No such problem here! Director Mike Mullen, Musical Directors Ian Partridge and Rachael Thorpe, and Choreographers Susie Maycock and Louise Hodson have combined their expertise and experience to oversee a production that is well conceived, slick, engaging and mesmerising in equal measure. There still may not be much of a plotline, but it is to the whole company’s credit (both onstage and behind the scenes) that the narrative is conveyed with such clarity, through excellent musicality and dance of the highest quality. I found myself smiling like a Cheshire cat as much as the cast throughout the show, whilst also at times being genuinely moved by their emotional performances.

First class direction ensures that the stage never appears overcrowded, the pace is good, and each performer, from the oldest cat to the youngest kitten, has a distinctive personality and character (enhanced by specific costumes and makeup, unique to each individual, with a couple of notable and appropriate exceptions), as well as excellent focus and energy from the moment you step into the auditorium until you leave. It’s not easy to stay in character and improvise as the audience enters before the show – and yet each performer managed to do just that with style and finesse.

Outstanding choreography covers various styles of dance, all designed to bring out the best from each performer and enhance their feline characteristics, while the ambience was enhanced with effective scenery and stunning atmospheric lighting and effects.

In such a cohesive ensemble production, it seems churlish to pick out individuals, but there are a few who I believe deserve special mention. I was totally captivated by Karcsi Wright as Munkustrap, with his feline physicality, unswerving focus and commitment to the role, catlike tread in dance moves and super vocal quality. Abi Moore (Grizabella) brings a poignant vulnerability as she makes the show’s iconic song, ‘Memory’, her own, with a voice mature beyond her years. Immie Crabtree (Mungojerrie) and Emma Hatherell (Rumpleteazer) both have a natural aptitude for comedy, as well as possessing the ‘triple threat’ of excellent singing, dancing and acting, while Lily Rochard (Jellylorum) and Taylor Angell-Collins (Gus) are delightful in ‘Gus the Theatre Cat’, and Izzy Li (Demeter) and Summer Hughes (Bombalurina) command the stage throughout, especially in ‘Macavity’.

There were a few first-night minor glitches, understandable with the transition from a small rehearsal area to the larger stage of The Point and the addition of a near-capacity audience, but I’m sure these will be ironed out throughout the rest of the run. There has been an enormous amount of time and work put into CPYT’s Cats – and it has paid off magnificently. This is no feral production, but one that leaves the audience purring with delight. The cast and production team thoroughly deserve their opening night standing ovation and have earned the right to be “the cats who’ve got the cream”!

Cats runs until Saturday 18 February (7.30pm each evening with a 2.30pm Saturday matinee), with a retiring collection for Ben Pavitt’s Legacy Of Love fund (in aid of research into the treatments for childhood cancer), and is a delight to see.