Watch! Cats: the past, present and future

As Cats the musical celebrates 35 years on stage, and Dubai Opera welcomes its decidedly newer six-month anniversary, the two have partnered to put on a production whose timelessness has surpassed all expectations. In celebration of the event, three key players recollect their past, present and future of the feline musical

Sir Trevor Nunn directed Cats in its 1981 debut. He is best known as Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position he held from 1968-1986

trevor Nunn
Trevor Nunn

‘I can clearly remember meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber very briefly when I did a show in London called ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, which he was impressed by. He asked if I might consider staging a song cycle he’d written called ‘Tell me on a Sunday’. I had several thoughts about that and corresponded with him, and eventually he replied, ‘Oh what a shame it’s been done on television, so forget about that’. I thought that would be the very last contact I would ever have with him.

A couple of months later he got in touch and discussed with me a different musical project based on the children’s poetry of TS Eliot, ‘Old Possums Book of Practical Cats.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed in my whole life.

There I was thinking, ‘This is Andrew Lloyd Webber, he’s written ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, he’s written ‘Evita’ – maybe he’s going to ask me to help create War of the Worlds, or something space age-y. But, no. TS Eliot’s poems for children. I thought, all those lucky people in the past have got the big epics, and I get… pussycats.

Andrew played some songs and some settings for the poems, and asked how we could turn that into a show. I said, ‘It’s sort of an anthology, isn’t it. We should have two pianos and a cast dressed in 1930s eveningwear, and it should be a Fitzrovia-esque affair… to which he replied, ‘no, no, no! I’m talking about a huge, spectacular musical.’ And therefore I gradually began to work out this constant reference to the Jellicle cats, who needed to be a tribe and a leader, which became Old Deutoronomy, and their final purpose, which became the allowance of a new life for one of the cats.’

Lee Greenaway plays Skimbleshanks the railway cat in the current production of Cats

Lee Greenaway
Lee Greenaway

I feel like going to see Cats is like going to see an event. The audience come into a world they are not used to, and it's a world that belongs to the cats. The cats aren’t doing it for the audience; they were going to be there anyway. Eventually the cats warm to them, and accept them, and I think that’s the magic ingredient to the show.

Getting into the mindset of a feline is the first thing we do. It’s very embarrassing, with everyone crawling around on their hands and knees! – but you can get all those inhibitions out of the way, and once you do you that and find your cat, you can begin to learn the choreography, which is so well done: it’s not how a human moves.

Nothing about this show is obvious, so you would never get anybody running around miaowing. It’s the subtleties; the movement in the neck, the eyes.

It’s all about finding the human in the cat too, combining the character with the cat. My cat is called Skimbleshanks, and he’s an older cat who lives on the railway. He protects all of the younger cats and is somewhat of an authority figure. But every cat will have their own way of looking and of moving – we’re encouraged to see with our ears and see with our eyes… it’s just a new way of feeling about the world, really.

We’ve had Trevor Nunn, the original director in with us, which has been an absolute treat. There are a lot of old British references, and his knowledge of all these words that we don’t understand has been second to none. It’s about getting across those fantastical aspects too, so people can understand what we’re trying to say.

Costume-wise, everything takes at least two hours to get ready. We do our own makeup, and mine takes about an hour, coupled with the wig and the costume which takes another hour. We’ve come from England, where the weather is terrible! So to come to Dubai, to see the architecture and perform in this stunning new theatre – the whole vibe has been so exciting.’

Chrissie Cartwright has been the artistic co-ordinator and resident director since 1986

Chrissie Cartright
Chrissie Cartright

‘I had a phone call in 1986 asking if I would go and meet Gillian Lynne, the original choreographer and talk about going into the show, which at the time had been running for five years. The poetry was written so long ago but the theme is still so relevant, and has such significance today – it’s about forgiveness, after all, and I can’t think of any better lesson to teach our children.

I love the intricacies of the choreography and helping the actors really feel like a cat. I teach the dancers through improvisation – I ask them to go away and observe them, to find characteristics that no-one else will have ever noticed.

There are tiny muscular movements in their faces; when my cat sees a bird, his mouth quivers very slightly. Or just the tip of his tongue hangs out. Just those tiny, tiny details. We don’t want to see adults pretending to be cats – the actors have to believe in order to take their audience on a journey. Thinking of Joanna Ampil, who plays Grizabella, the faded glamour queen in the current production, she really makes you feel something – it is so sad, and you do see these cats in doorways all over London.

Bringing the show to Dubai, though I’ve taken Cats all over Europe and in places like Moscow, this is the most culturally different place I have been with Cats, I think. What we’ve tried to do is base it on the spiritual aspect. If that’s not there, it doesn’t work – we have some great dancing and singing, but it’s the spirituality that makes it animalistic, and unique.’

Cats is playing until 28 Jan at Dubai Opera. To buy tickets, click here