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Reviews / Running out of superlatives for CATS

CATS from Kirkwall has taken the Lerwick Garrison stage by storm this weekend. Here is Stephanie Julie Baird as Victoria (left) and Graham Macdonald as Growltiger being watched by Old Deuteronomy played by Dennis Gowland. Photo Chris Brown

THIS weekend the Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society (KAOS) brought their much-acclaimed production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS musical to Shetland. We sent a somewhat dubious Kathy Hubbard along to watch and here’s what she thought.

When Shetland News asked me to write something about cats, I honestly believed they were looking for some kind of whimsical article on the feline friends with whom we share our homes. Odd request, but I thought I’d give it a go.

When they then asked me which performance I was going to see I realised with horror that it was a review of CATS that they were after, not a light-hearted account of life with my eight kilo moggie.

I say ‘with horror’ because although the poetry of TS Eliot, upon which CATS is based, is absolutely my ‘thing’, musical theatre is absolutely not.

So it was with a sense of rising anxiety that I approached the Garrison Theatre on Friday afternoon. What was I going to do if I didn’t like it? How would I find 800 sincere and honest words?

So let me start by saying that Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society’s version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber West End hit absolutely blew me away. In fact, it was so good that I now fear I will run out of superlatives.

Consider this: the company has 47 – yes, forty seven – people on stage; a stage that has a busy set, and a stage that is only half the size of the one the company is used to performing on in Orkney.

Lorraine McBrearty as Grizabella. Photo Chris Brown

It is a daunting challenge for any director to move such a large cast around in such a restricted space, but Lesley MacDonald (in only her first solo director’s role) rose to that challenge skillfully – as did the cast. Every entrance and exit was managed with grace and efficiency, and noone ever lost their focus or character in the process.

And on stage they were terrific – they sang, danced and acted their hearts out with a palpable joy that captured the audience from the first minute. Their singing was wonderful, both ensemble and as individuals. They sang like they really meant it with a sense of conviction and captivating confidence.

Even more impressively, they were singing to a pre-recorded score, whereas in Orkney they had had the benefit of working with an 18 piece orchestra. This is risky business for the cast. With a pre-recorded score there is noone to dig you out of a hole if you miss a line or lose your place (although they were fortunate in having their evidently capable musical director out front, conducting and encouraging them).

They took all this in their stride, and rose to the often complex Lloyd Webber numbers – whilst dancing energetically at the same time. This company is nothing if not fit.

The restrictions imposed on them by the size of the Garrison stage also meant that it was mostly the younger members who danced this version of the show, and they danced it with passion and athleticism, and with no sense of having to draw in their movements to cope with the reduced space.

I wish I could name-check them all – they all deserve it. But I have to restrict myself to my available space too, so let me mention Camron Dowell as a Rum Tum Tugger with serious attitude; Colin Borland, who was channelling Michael Gambon as Gus the Theatre Cat; Tara Simpson and Jenna Young as stylish duo Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer; Lorraine McBrearty, who brought genuine pride and pathos to Grizabella, chosen to be reborn into a different cat.

But hats off and waving in the air to Dave Clapham who played not only his two allocated roles of Quaxo and Bustopher Jones but also the role of McAvity when colleague Graham Macdonald tore his muscle the day before and was confined to playing just one of his two roles (Growltiger). Plucky Dave had less than 24 hours to learn the extra part. That is the definition of a trooper.

The Kirkwall Amateur Operatic Society in full voice on stage at The Garrison Theatre. Photo Chris Brown

The audience particularly loved ‘The Kittens’, a large group of younger cast members who came forward when the call went out to the Orkney community in August 2013. Over a hundred people expressed an interest in being involved in the show.

The company operates an ‘open door’ policy and welcomes everyone regardless of experience or skill. A total of 64 travelled to Shetland, including backstage, production and housekeeping assistance. They include whole families, and range in age from nine to 73 years old. This is a truly grassroots, bottom-up, community experience of the best kind.

TS Eliot was not particularly well-known for his sense of humour, but in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, his most readily accessible work, he allowed full rein to his sense of the whimsical and magical, and to his obvious and genuine affection for cats in all their magnificent diversity.

This company has done full justice to his vision and poetry, and to Lloyd Webber’s memorable score. And they have done it all with heart and joy to burn.

In doing so they delivered an object lesson for anyone who is interested in participating in the arts – a lesson in commitment. The whole performance was of a standard that can only be achieved by 100 per cent commitment and dedication to the production. Respect, KAOS: respect.

Come back to Shetland with your production of Les Miserables in 2015. We’d love to see you again.

Kathy Hubbard