In 1981 when Cats first appeared at the New London Theatre, John Napier wrote a note for the original programme on his visions for the design of the show. With minimal changes to the design of Cats, his notes remain relevant today.
When John Napier first created the Cat’s set back in November 1980, he planned to create a complete environmental space for the show that took the audience “into a world which uses real objects to conjure up fantasy, that they may at first find slightly disorientating and perhaps make them wonder what is going to happen and – how”
“A giant playground for cats”
He wanted to design a set that pulled the audience into the junkyard from the moment they entered the theatre. His plan was to develop a “world for cats that would not only achieve a greater degree of intimacy with the audience than is possible in most conventional theatres but would also point up the humour of the show and its occasional whackiness”.
When he first began working on the designs, he tried to visualise a place where cats might congregate together, which also included maximum room for dancing. Everything in the resulting playground/junkyard was constructed to a cat’s scale – three and a bit times life size – huge rubbish bins, and abandoned car, massive tyres, bicycles, even used tubes of toothpaste, worn out Christmas decorations and lots of garbage from which the cats can improvise various disguises enabling them to tell the story from the objects they find lying around. This meant almost all props had to be specially be made to scale.
When creating the costumes for each character John Napier followed the hints in T S Eliot’s text, blending together the cat and human elements. Every cat has individual make-up, which also helps to project their personality.
Bustopher Jones’ character, for instance is an obvious candidate for a full-blown portly treatment but most of the costumes are naturally very flexible and easy to move in – an essential feature in a show where dance is such a central element.