Cats

 

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved feline fantasy is brought to the big screen in an imaginative, accomplished and barmy adaptation.

 

Cats

Getting the cream: Francesca Hayward and Robbie Fairchild

 

Cats has always been an odd one. Having cut his professional ties with Tim Rice, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber turned to a collection of whimsical poems by T.S. Eliot, published in the latter’s oddly named Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Not unsurprisingly, Lloyd Webber found investment hard to come by and only raised the necessary capital by providing personal financial guarantees to his backers. Then, prior to the opening night, the show’s star, Judi Dench, tore her Achilles’ tendon and had to be replaced at the eleventh hour by Elaine Paige. Then, when the show opened eleven days late, the reviews were not unequivocally kind, although the production ended up winning the Olivier, Ivor Novello and Evening Standard awards for best musical of 1981. It also became the longest-running musical in history, both in the West End and on Broadway, until that title was usurped by Les Misérables. Still, this was not bad for a musical with a non-human cast and minus a lyricist.

 

The musical stage has long been a platform for unimaginable worlds and despite his detractors, Andrew Lloyd Webber has pushed the parameters to new extremes. One forgets how daring Jesus Christ Superstar was in its day, and Starlight Express, featuring a cast of locomotives, seemed unthinkable. Meanwhile, on stage, Cats seduced theatregoers across the globe and has been translated into fifteen languages, while its big number, ‘Memory’ – with lyrics by Trevor Nunn – has boasted over 600 recorded cover versions. It would take a filmmaker of some chutzpah and vision, then, to attempt a big screen adaptation. But Tom Hooper was never one to shy away from a challenge. In fact, it was he who took Les Misérables to the silver screen, garnering it eight Oscar nominations and $442 million at the box-office.

 

What Hooper has done here is to serve his material, to corral a stellar, variegated cast and to bring together the best production values that money can buy. The sets, designed by the Bafta-winning Eve Stewart, are simply sensational, bringing alive a crepuscular, parallel universe of old London, where billboards for The Mousetrap and The Cat and the Canary usher in a note of unseen, human menace. The creatures themselves, with their cat-like tread, responsive ears and animated tails, are a marvel of CGI. The casting of Idris Elba as Macavity, the Grim Reaper of the feline world, is not altogether successful – clearly, he cannot sing. But Judi Dench brings genuine pathos and gravitas to her role as Old Deuteronomy, completing the circle of her involvement with the production (she had been cast as Grizabella in the original). There are notable turns, too, from Ian McKellen as Gus The Theatre Cat, Laurie Davidson as Mr Mistoffelees, Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap and Jennifer Hudson, who gives her all as Grizabella, baring her soul and her pain during two show-stopping renditions of ‘Memory.’ But it is the Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward as Victoria, whose open face and balletic grace nails the heart of the film.

 

Whether or not one buys into a company of humanoid moggies strutting their stuff is up to one’s ability to dream. Not all the comedy stuff works, and there are a few minor miscalculations, but overall it is a rousing theatrical event that transcends the expected. At a time when the cinema is congested with sequels and remakes, it’s heartening to encounter something so bracingly original and audacious – and creatively proficient.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone, Francesca Hayward, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan, Steven McRae, Mette Towley.

 

Dir Tom Hooper, Pro Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Tom Hooper, Screenplay Lee Hall and Tom Hooper, Ph Christopher Ross, Pro Des Eve Stewart, Ed Melanie Oliver, Music Andrew Lloyd Webber, Costumes Paco Delgado, Dialect coach Hugh O’Shea.

 

Working Title Films/Amblin Entertainment/Monumental Pictures/The Really Useful Group-Universal Pictures.

109 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 20 December 2019. Cert. U.