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Dated 22nd October 2016

By David Slater, NODA NW

NODA Review: CATS (HYT Production)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's unfathomably popular show was given a very polished airing at the Todmorden Hippodrome and showed off the terpsichorean talents of the gifted Youth Theatre quite magnificently. 'Cats' managed to break box office records with its long runs in the West End and on Broadway and seemed to be permanent fixture in the theatrical landscape for years: why this dismally thin little show should deserve such a bewilderingly long run is quite beyond me however but nevertheless, the ever enthusiastic troupe of young players at the Hippodrome managed to breathe life into this feline enigma in a tireless display on stage which looked and sounded supremely professional throughout.

The show is very much a dance piece and requires a great deal of slick choreography executed by a talented ensemble; fortunately, the Hippodrome Youth Theatre has talent in spades and brought off one magical musical routine after another. The junkyard setting was a triumph of scene building and the twilight atmosphere was well established for the gathering of the Jellicle Cats as they gathered for a very pacy musical prologue. As the show is essentially a series of musical numbers detailing the various feline personalities gathered for the Jellicle Ball, we bounce from one routine to the next without paws - sorry, 'pause' - and the cast need to be as indefatigable as they are enthusiastic. The feline characters' names are as tiresomely winsome as you might expect (Rum Tum Tugger, Jellylorum, Skimbleshanks, etc) and are best glossed over quickly and with a pained expression: TS Eliot's horrifically whimsical verses are an acquired taste which my literary palette can't handle and when accompanied by Lloyd Webber's deadeningly banal music, it all adds up to a recipe for potential disaster. Full marks must go to the Hippodrome gang for making all the ingredients come together so well and for making a committed ailurophobe like me enjoy the experience.

A first class orchestra brought sparkle and panache to the indifferent musical score and really impressed with a consistently high standard all evening. I can safely say that this was the finest interpretation of the musical score that I have heard, professional recordings included. There were a number of musical highlights for me: the Overture and Prologue were both first class and The Jellicle Ball showcased the wonderful fusion of orchestra and chorus. The Journey to the Heaviside Layer was another great musical moment, again really showing the production at its best, musically speaking. As 'Cats' is essentially a catalogue of feline introductions, there is a complete absence of narrative drive which means that the show needs to be something of a music and dance spectacular, with strong technical support and exceptional work from the costume and make up departments needed too. The Hippodrome Youth Theatre excelled across the board here and the production team are to be applauded for having understood the need to present something which looked and sounded first class.

'Cats' is very much an ensemble show and it feels invidious therefore to single out individual performers for particular comment; added to which, to give every last cat and kitten a personal mention would take forever! I shall instead restrain myself to pointing to a few personal highlights and apologise to anyone who feels unfairly left out! James Waring fairly fizzed with energy all evening as Munkustrap and was a strong presence on stage throughout; Iris Palmer and Sarah Brierley made a really great pairing as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer; Noah Bhilmull Hilton was a very affecting Gus, the Theatre Cat; Ellie Spooner was a very sprightly Skimbleshanks and Alyse Costello coped with the pressure of 'that' song (you know the one!) beautifully, putting her own stamp on a well-worn show tune. For me however, it was when the whole cast came together to create each well crafted musical tableau that will live longest in the memory.

Director Martin Cook had obviously worked long and hard with his team to produce a really impressive show with Todmorden's version of 'Cats', with choreography from Alexandra Townend and Lisa Parker adding so much too. Helen Clarkson's orchestra provided a stirring version of the score and along with a great set and impressive costumes and makeup, the whole enterprise had the polished sheen of a well-groomed fur coat. This, along with the abundance of talented youngsters who brought the show to life, meant that a great night out at the theatre was guaranteed. Personal taste is of course a tremendously subjective thing (I think the show is something of a disaster artistically speaking but I imagine I'm in a minority of one there!) but when a production can make a virtue of a show's limitations and create a satisfying blend of music and movement, all involved should be immensely proud of their achievement. Proof if proof were needed that the talented gang at the Hippodrome really are the cat's whiskers!