Perhaps we all need to start bombarding Boris Johnson and his government with Harry Francis’ film Cats in Quarantine, which appeared on YouTube last week.
Francis created the work to raise money for the Theatre Support Fund (which collectively provides funds to Acting for Others, the Fleabag Support Fund, and NHS Charities Together’s National Covid-19 Urgent Appeal).
It brought considerable joy to what had otherwise been a deeply depressing week. One in which more theatres announced redundancies and extended closures, together with a vague government outline for reopening that made no mention of financial assistance.
Francis’ film, as well as being enjoyable and moving, makes the point that ours is a global and diverse industry which, across both the commercial and subsidised sectors, brings in an enviable annual economic contribution that must be protected and supported.
Francis had been on tour playing Mr Mistoffelees in the musical Cats until January. With Cats in Quarantine, he has pulled off a remarkable achievement by assembling an enviable cast of the musical’s alumni from productions past and present around the world. Together, they recreate a very special version of the Jellicle Ball – the thrilling big dance number from the musical.
The opening credits reveal that the cast members from those respective productions have been assembled from the original London and Broadway casts, the Netherlands, Toronto, Zurich, Australia, Vienna, Paris, the 1998 film, South Korea, Royal Caribbean Cruises, the London Palladium, the US national tour, the UK national tour and the international tour.
It is a real accomplishment that Francis was able to bring so many artists together and shows the love he holds for this musical; a love we see is equally shared by his fellow Cats participants. It also highlights how, up until coronavirus closed theatres, a 39-year-old, British-made export was still delighting audiences around the world.
My pleasure in watching the film was also tempered with a tremendous feeling of loss and longing for our theatre industry. Nonetheless, I was grateful that this eight-minute online film, lovingly put together, has come along now and is helping lift spirits during these darkest of times.
For me, it also managed to evoke that early memory and excitement I felt the first time I saw this musical as a child. Even though it has been filmed outside of a theatre, it still managed viscerally to capture the thrill of performance and all its many possibilities.
Cats in Quarantine superbly shows the discipline of its performers, and how the actors who have appeared in the musical recognise that they are part of a long legacy, one proudly worn as a badge of honour.
It also underlines the fact that Cats is, and always will, be an ensemble show, with the film featuring an enviable array of musical talent including Bonnie Langford, Ken Page, Drew McOnie, Zizi Strallen, Michael Howe and Rosemarie Ford, for whom Cats provided a valuable catalyst to a career in theatre.
This show changed lives, not only those of its cast members but also the hundreds of people who have been involved in producing and delivering this musical around the world from backstage to front house – and the lives of many of its audiences.
The last time I saw Cats live was at Theatre Royal Plymouth a few years ago as the production played a national tour en route to the London Palladium. I recalled looking around the audience at the time and seeing a vibrant mix of older and younger attendees, many of whom were having their first experience of this musical.
They were all excited to share the experience with others. That’s part of the magic of theatregoing, and it is especially important in the regions, where these first experiences and discoveries can lead to a lasting love of the arts – and, for some, maybe even the decision to pursue a career in the industry.
For many attendees, Cats is an introduction to the theatre, which means it plays a vital role in our theatre history and still has a role to play in its future.
However, on the same day that celebratory film was released, Theatre Royal Plymouth announced it faced making more than 100 of its staff redundant, the latest victim of this devastating pandemic.
Cats might be the perfect show for this challenging time in finding hope against adversity
It is a tragedy for those who work there, and for many other regional theatres that are also announcing similar cutbacks. It is also terrible news for their audiences, who benefit not only from the shows but also the outreach work of these vital organisations.
Cats might be the perfect show for this challenging time in finding hope against adversity; after all, its own well-documented journey to the stage faced plenty of issues. However, the courage and belief by all those involved helped it to revolutionise the British-made musical across every aspect of its production and delivery, putting our theatre industry at the global centre. Though despite all that, Cats is still held in less regard than it rightfully deserves.
Cats in Quarantine provides an opportunity to see close-up Gillian Lynne’s timeless, groundbreaking choreography. Exactly a year ago, I was sat watching the terrific concert To Gillie With Love, at the West End’s newly named Gillian Lynne Theatre, which celebrated her life.
Like that show, Francis’ film reminds us of Lynne’s great talent, and the fact that Cats is the quintessential musical survivor. It also reaffirms how much our industry contributes to the lives of so many: whether this is in the joy of watching and performing or simply the healthy income that live theatre brings to a country’s economy.
Now and Forever – Cats’ slogan – is a message for these times as we look to our own resilience, and continue to call on the government for support, to survive this terrible pandemic.