The joy of touring theatre: Cats at the Marlowe Theatre

There’s nothing quite like the West End for those who love theatre. I like to think of it as the hub at the centre of the ever-turning wheel which is the theatre industry, but just as with an actual wheel, it also has other components attached to it which have their own place and part to play too. The regional theatres which operate outside of the West End can be likened to the spokes that radiate out from the hub, the wheel in its entirety offering a perfect representation of the UK theatre industry.

The West End may be a Mecca for theatregoers, but there are always a countless number of equally high-quality productions to be found, not only in the Greater London area, but further afield and reaching all corners of the country. These venues which lie outside the reach of the West End help to bring the joy of theatre to everyone and are a vital and beneficial part of the theatrical ‘wheel’.

The Marlowe Theatre, which is based in Canterbury, is one such venue which has helped to bridge the gap between the West End and audiences in the Kentish area. The current theatre opened on 4th October 2011 after a two-year, £25.6 million project which saw the old building demolished and a brand new and improved one constructed on an extended site. The three-level theatre was designed by the award-winning Keith Williams Architects and features an increased seating capacity of 1,200 as well as a larger orchestra pit in the main auditorium which can accommodate up to eighty musicians. It also houses a brand new performance space named The Marlowe Studio which specifically welcomes new writing and contemporary theatre to its stage with a host of theatrical performances, creative workshops, gigs and events.

Named for the 16th century dramatist Christopher Marlowe, who was born in Canterbury and has been tied to Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, the theatre was opened by Royal Patron of the New Marlowe Theatre Development Trust, HRH The Earl of Wessex. A gala concert took place on the night to celebrate the landmark moment, and in the (nearly) three years since that first performance, many more have followed as the theatre continues to go from strength to strength.

Reading through the Marlowe Theatre’s ‘What’s On’ list, the variety of shows coming to its stage in the coming months are a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical treats. From comedians Derren Brown and Lee Nelson to an evening of conversation with Sir Roger Moore, dance productions of Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby to the Glyndebourne Tour 2014 featuring operas La finta giardiniera, La traviata and The Turn of the Screw, and the RSC’s Henry IV (Parts I & II) to West End plays Hay Fever and To Kill A Mockingbird, the theatre offers entertainment to suit any taste. There are touring productions of musicals West Side Story, Tonight’s The Night, Jersey Boys, Shrek and One Man, Two Guvnors on their way, bringing a little taste of the West End to musical theatre lovers outside of London.

Playing there right now though is the UK tour of the musical Cats, which I went to last night and would recommend to anyone. I’ve always been a fan of the originality of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which sets the poems of T.S. Eliot to music and has them performed by musical theatre actors/actresses dressed up as cats. There are some unbelievably talented men and women in this industry and ALW’s show is the perfect vehicle to showcase those talents as it necessitates the use of the ‘triple-threat’ performer. Singers, dancers and actors all in one, the show’s cast are the ones who carry the show as there is no reliance on special effects or fancy set changes in Cats… it is all about the performances and that is what makes it such a stunning and utterly mesmorising show to watch.

The current company touring in Cats are simply phenomenal. At the end of the show, you will go away with three thoughts: if you don’t have a cat, you will want to get one (and give it a Jellicle name of course), you will want to enrol in a dance class and you will be inspired to join a gym. The skin-tight cat leotards worn by (most of) the performers coupled with the high energy, flexible choreography performed make an electrifying partnership and I could have quite happily sat there and watched them dance for 2 ½ hours without one note being sung. The songs are the icing on the cake though and there wasn’t a weak link amongst the cast in terms of vocal ability – in fact, the entire company were strong dancers, singer and actors. However there were stand-out performances from the likes of Joseph Poulton (Quaxo/Mistoffeles), Filippo Strocchi (Rum Tum Tugger) Benjamin Yates and Dawn Williams (Mungojerry and Rumpleteazer), while more recent cast additions such as Zizi Strallen (Demeter) and Callum Train (Munkustrap) made their presence felt. The ‘wow’ performance came from Sophia Ragavelas though, who delivered a flawless rendition of ‘Memory’ as Grizabella and gave the audience goosebumps in the moment she goes for the full-on belt. Special mention at this performance must also go to swing Ryan Gover, who was on for Carbucketty that night.

I went to Cats with my mum and daughter and it’s a testament to the show that three generations of theatre lovers could enjoy it to the extent that we did. Having not been in the West End since 2002, both myself and my daughter had never seen it performed live on stage, so what this touring production gave us was the opportunity to create a memory which we never would have had if it were not it coming to the Marlowe Theatre. It is so important to bring the arts to areas outside of London. We all had a fantastic night seeing this timeless musical in a venue which could rival any West End theatre and will undoubtedly be back again for the shows yet to come.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25)

Thursday 26th June 2014