CATS 20th Anniversary

What's On In London, May 9-16th 2001 Issue

Nine out of ten tourists prefer it. Your mum's seen it, your gran's seen it, chances are even your dog has seen it. Posters advertising it have been plastering double-decker buses for years on end. And now, on May 11, the longest running musical in the West End's history will be celebrating it's 20th Birthday, with a show featuring a new cast including Dave Willetts as "Old Deuteronomy" - a performer with the distinction of having played both "Jean Valjean" in Les Misérables and "The Phantom" in The Phantom of the Opera, making him the first person in the world to play the leading roles in both musicals. There's also a special display of memorabilia from productions around the world that has been especially mounted in the foyer, and a new website (www.catsthemusical.com) packed with news about the show, the Saturday morning Kids' Club (every first and third Saturday in each month; details on 0202-7242-9802) as well as ticketing information.

Perhaps Cats' success lies in the fact that its entire premise pays homage to the great British tradition that started life with the pantomime horse: running round dressed up in animal costumes. Adapted from T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a wily assortment of feline characters, wearing alarming make-up and scary street attire, sing and dance their way through a musical medley that includes the unforgettable "Memory".

There are top-cats, boss-cats, hep-cats and cool-cats. But packed-out audiences may be startled to learn that the whole kaboodle nearly launched with none other than Judi Dench in the driver's seat in 1981. However the grande dame of theatre snapped her Achilles tendon, and housewives' favourite Elaine Paige stepped in instead. Stars who have donned whiskers and furs since include kittens Bonnie Langford and Sarah Brightman, and tom-cats Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep and Paul Nicholas.

Ren & Stimpy it ain't. In fact, it's probably got more in common with Animal Hospital. But nevertheless, its purr-fectly wholesome family appeal has drawn well over 50 million viewers worldwide to date. (That's practically equal to the entire UK population.) In London alone the show has taken over £125 million at over 8.500 performances and has been seen by more than 8 million people. There are currently productions playing across the globe, including Japan, Hamburg and Budapest, with a forthcoming US tour planned. Worldwide, Cats has taken over £1 billion.

Alongside Les Mis and Starlight Express, Cats is now, like Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, pretty much a London institution. Those who wish to experience it first hand can cat-call the New London Theatre, Drury Lane on 020 7405 0072.

Source: What's On In London magazine.