Purr-fect role for Cats fan Joanna

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Katy Wheeler speaks to the star of everyone’s favourite feline show

The magic of Cats will be slinking its way into Sunderland at the end of the month.

It’s a show that’s been enchanting audiences worldwide since it opened in the West End in 1981 and has become one of the longest-running musicals ever.

Among its legion of fans is actress Joanna Ampil. So winning the role of dishevelled heroine Grizabella – who is returning to the feline fold after wetting her whiskers by leaving the group to get her claws into the outside world – was a dream come true.

She’s been playing the role on tour since February.

“I’m absolutely loving it. It’s a dream role for me in one of my favourite musicals,” she said.

“I wanted to audition before it closed in the West End, but didn’t get the chance. When I found out it was touring I rang my agent and said he had to get me an audition.”

She added: “I had very little dancing experience before and just had to sing for the audition, but when it came to rehearsals I threw myself into the choreography 24/7.

“Grizabella’s a bit of a pariah. In her youth she went away from the tribe because she wanted to experience the world and now she wants to get back in the tribe.”

It’s a role that was famously played by Elaine Page who went down in the theatre history books for her rendition of iconic track Memories. So how does it feel stepping into the furry shoes of such a well-known performance?

“There’s always that pressure,” said Joanna. “It’s not just the fact that Elaine Paige and so many other great actresses have played the role, it’s that Memories is so known to so many people.

“But I hope and pray that every time I sing it I bring my own interpretation to it.

“There’s always an adrenaline rush with that song. I really try to focus on the story of the song.”

Joanna herself is no stranger to successful shows. She has played leading roles in the West End productions of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Avenue Q and Jesus Christ Superstar amongst others.

She says she’s more than happy playing Grizabella for the time being. “Cats is like Les Mis, everyone knows it,” she said.

Based on TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the story focuses on one special night of the year where all Jellicle cats meet at the Jellicle Ball.

Here, Old Deuteronomy, their wise and benevolent leader, makes the Jellicle choice and announces which of them will go up to the heaviside layer and be reborn into a whole new Jellicle life. A who’s who of theatre performers have pulled on leotards to play Cats characters over the years including Wayne Sleep as Mungojerrie, Bonnie Langford as Rumpleteazer, Paul Nicholas as Rum Tum Tugger, Brian Blessed as Old Deuteronomy, Sarah Brightman as Jemima and Rosemarie Ford as Bombalurina and Grizabella.

“I think it’s popular for a number of reasons,” said Joanna.

“Part of it is that people love TS Eliot’s work, then there’s the collaboration of people like Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“All these elements combine with the magic of the show itself. It appeals to a wide audience and it has such good tunes, every song is a production number.”

* Cats will be at Sunderland Empire from May 28-June 8. Tickets priced £10-£37.50 can be purchased in person from the Box Office on High Street West, Sunderland, the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 and online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.

* Cats opened at the New London Theatre on May 11, 1981, and played almost 9,000 performances.

It closed on May 11, 2002, having celebrated 21 record-breaking years and winning an Olivier Award for Best Musical.

On Broadway it was the winner of seven Tony Awards (including Best Musical and Best Director) and ran for 18 years making it second only to The Phantom Of The Opera as Broadway’s longest-running musical.

To date, Cats remains one of the world’s longest-running musicals and has been seen by more than 50 million people.

Cats was last seen in the UK in 2008 where it played to sell-out audiences across the country.