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An unhealthy obsession? The cult of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’

Alison Hall asks why so many are hooked by this cult classic

I must confess – I am quite obsessed with Cats.

Not the animal, of course, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal 1981 musical and the 2019 film adaptation. I spent money on tickets to see the latter – twice. As if the 119 minutes I spent oscillating between varying states of horror and shame as grotesque Lovecraftian CGI felines writhed around on the screen in front of me wasn’t enough, I did it all over again. I can only compare the experience to that of watching a snuff film. I felt dirty – but I loved every second of it.

My love for Cats has spiralled into quite the fixation. Bustopher Jones, the Cat About Town, is living in my head rent free. I will admit that I have asked the Plush DJ to play ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat’ on more than one occasion. I weep as I realise this year’s Jellicle Ball has probably been cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic. I could go on, but this has all the marks of an obsession, and an unhealthy one at that.

It brings me great joy to know that I’m not the only one afflicted by such a disease. The catastrophic failure (no pun intended) of this ice cream headache of film has meant that it’s on the way to achieving cult status. It is one of the most divisive musicals of all time, having run for twenty-one years on the West End and eighteen on Broadway despite it being slammed as – to put it simply – just plain weird. Although a complete critical and financial flop, the film’s release has spawned a new fan base; it’s a camp, hallucinogenic car crash, which is exactly why we love it.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show bombed at the box office upon its first release in 1975. Almost five decades later, it has come to be synonymous with the phrase “cult classic”. Like Cats, it reeks of camp and schlocky excess, and it only seems to grow more popular as the years go by. Midnight showings where raucous audiences dress up in their corseted finery, throw toilet roll and rice at the screen and sometimes act along to the entire film have become the norm, to the point at which the thought of a screening devoid of audience participation seems rather unsettling.

I can only hope that Cats achieves the same honour. Just weeks after its first release, independent cinemas started to hold “rowdy screenings” of the film, which saw (usually inebriated) audiences somehow belting out ‘Memory’, albeit while somehow screaming in abject terror at the same time. If the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t completely ravaged cinemas in fifty years’ time, perhaps Cats will still be considered one of these quintessential “midnight movies”.

Of all the quite horrendous musicals I’ve enjoyed over the last few years, Cats seems to shine brighter than the rest. It was one of the most notorious cinematic flops of recent memory – and everyone was talking about it. All being well, it will ascend to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn as a cult classic. And once we are reunited with our beloved cinemas, we can let its memory live again.

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