Ipswich: Co-op Juniors are off to the Jellicle Ball at New Wolsey

Josh Talbot as Mr Mistoffelees in the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company production of Cats at the New Wo

Josh Talbot as Mr Mistoffelees in the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company production of Cats at the New Wolsey. Picture: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company is “feline” good about its New Wolsey debut next month thanks to secret weapon Phyllida Crowley-Smith. After all, who better to offer advice about its ambitious, large-scale production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Cats than a former member of the London cast?

The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company cast rehearse

The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company cast rehearse - Credit: Archant

The Juniors’ resident choreographer Kerry Sayer shared a flat with Phyllida in London when they were both studying at Bush Davies Theatre School. While Kerry went dancing round the world, Phyllida headed for the West End to appear in Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Fame, Grease and Phantom of the Opera.

Phyllida Crowley-Smith as Victoria the White Cat in the London production of Cats

Phyllida Crowley-Smith as Victoria the White Cat in the London production of Cats - Credit: Archant

When the company decided to stage the iconic musical, Kerry called her stage school friend for help transforming the teenagers into cats; no easy task when they have to sing, dance and act too.

Phyllida Crowley-Smith as Victoria the White Cat in the London production of Cats

Phyllida Crowley-Smith as Victoria the White Cat in the London production of Cats - Credit: Archant

“As soon as I contacted her about Cats earlier this summer she emailed me to say ‘I know the show so well, I’m sure I can cough up a fur-ball or two’,” remembers Kerry.

Phyllida, who played Victoria the white cat for two years from 1992 and now teaches at the Gielgud Academy of Performing Arts, had a ball sharing her insights a few weeks later at the Juniors’ Ipswich studios.


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She spent most of the day in an intense workshop session with with the young cast; sharing her stage and performance secrets and explaining the physicality of performing as a cat every moment they are on stage and how to connect with the audience.

“Each cat has a distinctive character, you have to think not only about your appearance but where you are in the cat hierarchy and what others think of you... whether you’re proud, brave, scared or timid; one of the crowd or a loner,” she says.

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“Musical theatre is the most demanding discipline - staying in character, being truthful and honest with what is going on, singing the right notes and dancing the choreography - all at the same time.”

Many of the cast had already seen the DVD of the London production in which Phyllida appears. They lapped up her experience.

“It was mesmerising to hear Phyllida explain how each cat is an individual with their own character and how to sustain that through a show,” says Gabrielle Pemberton, 19, who plays Jellyorum.

For director Oliver Brett, 23, the chance to discuss his concept of Cats - boasting a cast of 36 and a live orchestra of 14 - with an experienced musical theatre performer was a real bonus.

Having just returned from working with Disney in Tokyo, he had very clear ideas about the musical staging and every element of design.

“The cast really enjoyed working with Phyllida,” he says. “She made them think about their characters and how they relate to each other as cats. From the tragic Grizabella to the show-off Rum Tum Tugger, every cat has a different personality.”

For Kerry, long-gone are the days of calling home from a pay-phone in the hallway at the flat she shared with Phyllida and another dancer.

“We’ve both come a long way and are still sharing our knowledge with another generation of stage performers. That’s a special privilege,” she adds.

Packed with memorable numbers including Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats and Memory, Cats has played in more than 250 cities worldwide since its premiere in London in 1981. Inspired by the poems of TS Eliot, it was originally directed by Trevor Nunn.

Phyllida enjoys working with students and her visit to Ipswich re-connected her with the Cats phenomenon. Still touring the world, the show is one of the longest-running musicals.

“I love how receptive young people are,” she says. “They’re passionate about the show and I think the production has a fresh, innovative feel to it.”

Cats is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from July 3-6. Tickets are available from the box office on 01473 295900. For more information about the Juniors visit wwwcoopjuniors.co.uk

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