Monday, March 31, 2014
Devotees have been feline the love for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats since 1981. Ahead of its arrival at Norwich Theatre Royal on Wednesday, STACIA BRIGGS spoke to Cats’ company manager Steve Diamond about his purr-sonal affiliation with the show and how he deals with on-stage cat-astrophes.
The first time Steve Diamond saw Cats was in 1981, just a few months after he’d been asked by the producers to invest a modest sum of cash into the production when he was a young stage manager.
“It was in March 1981 and I listened to the show, read it and I thought to myself ‘well, this will never work…’” he laughed.
“The money I was asked to invest was very small, so I doubt it would have made me a fortune, but it goes to show you how much I knew about one of the biggest shows of all time – absolutely nothing! I went to see the show when it opened and I thought it was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen.
“It’s odd to think that I’ve now been working on the show I thought would never work since 2004. It turns out that it did work, after all!”
Cats arrives in Norwich on Wednesday, a lavish, large-scale production which can only appear at theatres with enough space to accommodate the over-sized rubbish tip that creates the open-air theatre where the eponymous cats congregate.
“Other productions can shrink their sets so they can appear at smaller theatres, but the choreography in Cats is so tight that we need the space to move around,” explained Steve, who added that it takes a day-and-a-half to set up the show, which arrives in seven 44ft trailers.
The show is based on TS Eliot’s feline characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and sees a clowder of cats gathering every year on the night of the Jellicle Moon for their leader, Old Deuteronomy, to choose one cat to be reborn and live a new life in the Heaviside Layer.
On a stage decked out as a junkyard and littered with empty dustbins, car tyres and paint pots and lit by a huge full moon, cockroaches tap dance from still-smoking oven, giant boots drop from the sky and cats sneak from discarded pipes and car boots: it’s a spectacle that keeps Cats super-fans coming back, time after time. That and the show-stopping ‘Memories’ from jaded glamourpuss Grizabella.
As company manager, Steve’s role is almost like being a watchful father over the production, the technical crew and the cast.
“You have to be a counsellor, comforter, agony aunt and organiser and in addition to the performances, we’re also in constant rehearsal with the understudies to make sure they’re ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
“I’ve been doing this job for more than 35 years and so there’s not much I haven’t had to deal with although every so often a situation arises that even I think: ‘well, THAT hasn’t happened before...!’ The other day we were in Athens and had to bank some money – I was told I had to take the cash on the back of a motorbike and that there was only one helmet…and it was pink.
“Then I was told that I didn’t need a helmet because it was Athens and they don’t stand on ceremony. As we whizzed through the streets I thought: ‘I am going to end my days here at the hands of a man wearing a pink motorcycle helmet…’”
The first thing Steve does when he reaches a venue is to discover where the nearest accident and emergency department is – the cast in Cats are prone to injury and Steve spends a disproportionate amount of time in waiting rooms with a Cat who has lost another of its nine lives.
“I’ve been in most A&E departments across the world – I could write a guidebook!” he laughed.
“We have six ‘swings [understudies] in the wings who do backing vocals when they’re not on stage but they have to be ready to be on stage at a moment’s notice. In a show that’s as energetic and tightly choreographed as Cats, you have to be prepared for anything to happen.
“This job starts when you wake up and ends when you turn off the light before getting into bed and even then something might happen that means you have to spring into action.
“We’re like a family on tour – and, as with all families, there occasions when you get asked stupid questions and get annoyed and times when you’re the one asking the stupid questions. The production itself runs like clockwork – it has to or it wouldn’t work.
“The wardrobe mistress describes it like a military operation, and it is. People often come backstage and can’t believe how calm things are immediately before a show.”
Despite the apparent tranquility, it takes a lot of hard work to keep a production like Cats purring like the vintage Jaguar it is.
Each performer is taught to apply their own make-up – specific to the Cat they are playing – costumes must be washed and repaired between each performance and there are 22 cats in the cast, each with two understudies who have their own costumes.
There are 84 handmade yak-hair wigs to tend to, many of which must be de-knotted and cleaned every day to ensure the coarse hair isn’t damaged by glue or make-up and each is washed before every performance .
Steve estimates that he’s seen – or at least heard – at least 1,500 performances of Cats during his tenure as company manager
“I’ve seen and heard the show so many times that I know every part, every moment like the back of my hand. In theory, I could go on stage as any of the parts, in practice I really don’t look good in Lycra, and that’s kind of crucial!” he said.
“There’s a reason why Cats has endured for so long, and that’s because it’s a magical show. At the end of the day, it’s about a group of cats wearing leg-warmers, but somehow you get caught up in the atmosphere of it and it becomes a slightly surreal, trippy and magical experience that absolutely everyone can enjoy.
“It’s slightly ironic that a show that I dismissed as being something that would never work is the one I’ve worked on for 10 years.
“I’m happy to say that I was wrong. It’s an absolutely amazing show.”
Cats is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Wednesday until Saturday April 12. Call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk