When CATS closed on Broadway in 2000, after 18 years on the stage, it was the longest running musical in Broadway history. In Cats Talk Back five ex-cats reminisce on their time together, their process of bringing CATS to life, and what they’ve been doing in the years since.
Bess Wohl’s script, which she wrote for the New York International Fringe Festival, parodies a panel discussion between Fringe attendees and five “former cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS“. Elissa Blake from Audrey Journal moderates this discussion for New Theatre and attempts to maintain a positive atmosphere while dodging the actors’ egos, including rivalries and bitterness, and awkward or uncomfortable questions from fans and foes of the original CATS production. The course of the evening sees nearly everyone break down at least once when attempting to articulate how CATS impacted their lives and the grief associated with its closure nearly 20 years ago.
The underlying hilarity of Cats Talk Back is that CATS was an unprecedented and unexplainable commercial success. Based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot, CATS isn’t anywhere near Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best work in terms of the forgettable composition, simplistic lyrics, or overall near complete lack of a plot and yet it remains one of the most well-known mainstream musicals. This conflict between artistic merit and commercial compensation undercuts the dramatic and philosophical way these ex-cats wax about their time in the cast to extremely funny effect.
Hector (David Woodland) who played Rum Tum Tugger for ten years following notable actor Terrence Mann, speaks at length about immersing himself in the mind and body of a cat to most accurately portray his character including observing cats, improvising cat attitudes, and incorporating cat cleansing rituals into his life. Newbie Bonnie (Taylor Buoro), who was in CATS for a month before it closed, remembers fondly the hours spent constructing complex relationships between the cats with territorial alliances and histories that informed but never actually appeared in the staging.
Some of the actors seem to have suffered greatly from the closing of CATS as they’ve struggled to find a fulfilling career as human performers. Steven (Julian Ramundi) thinks a band will satisfy his need for recognition, Monique (Jodine Muir) can’t dance without a feline flair, and Reed (Callum Alexander) is broken by separation from his better half Rumpleteazer (Shayne de Groot). It all comes out in emotional ruptures throughout the ill-fated discussion.
The cast balance the informal panel discussion structure with the characters’ charged words well and delivery pithy insults and sappy declarations of love and family with aplomb. Excluding an off-colour through-line about Hector taking advantage of Bonnie’s trust, there is a real sense of the thick web of interrelations that keeps the characters’ tense in their seats and sparks hilarious outbursts.
If it’s not clear, Cats Talk Back is theatre for theatre people with plenty of inside jokes about the industry, parodies of grandiose actors and inter-show rivalries, and a warm self-referentiality to the theatre community. Sahn Millington’s direction brings the silly free-spirit of Fringe to the stage for audiences to laugh about the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of the theatre form, the people, and the commercialised industry.
Cats Talk Back is running at New Theatre from September 9th – 14th as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival