An illustrious puss once prowled every backstage in the land. Andrew Eames celebrates the legendary exploits of our theatre cats.
PANTO month is in full swing and stages all over the country are crammed with grown men and women dressed up in black boots and fake whiskers.
But while Pusses-in-Boots of the human variety are alive and well (and cracking some well-worn jokes), real theatre cats are a rare and precious breed, a remnant of the old, secret life of the stage.
Boy Cat (pictured) earned himself a place in history at The Albery by eating Princess Margaret’s bouquet during a Royal gala performance. He and Girl Cat are among the last in theatreland.
Take Misty, the mottled, drizzle-grey cat who spends most of her off-duty hours curled up on a box of drapes under the stage at the Strand Theatre in London. Winches whirr and clink all around, and above her head the stage thunders with footsteps and voices. A new cast for the musical Buddy is in rehearsal. Misty is unperturbed. The only thing that bothers her is the two motorbikes which roar into life during the show. At which point she usually evaporates.
There was a time when every self-respecting theatre would have a Misty to slink around nonchalantly backstage and relieve the tension of waiting actors. Theatre cats were part of the creative, bohemian life of the stage, providing numerous unscripted moments when they wandered casually out in front of the audience, mid-scene.
Misty, at least, will reappear when the motorbike scenes are over, but in most theatres the working cats have gone, squeezed out by under-staffing, management efficiency and health and safety standards. And with them has gone some of the precious spark of unpredictability that characterised life in the theatre.
Management has decided that rodent control may be less charismatic, but it does not fall asleep on the scenery, need a litter tray or make unprompted appearances stage left.
At the New London Theatre, the venue for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Cats (now in its 18th year), there is not a real creature in the building.
Nor is there a cat anywhere near The Mousetrap, now in its 47th year. In York, the Opera House was once home to Charlie, but he "went to pussy heaven" two years ago. Bath’s Theatre Royal last had a cat back in the 1970s, and now has only a stuffed one behind the fax machine.
The Manchester Apollo still has Chess, a huge black-and-white cat that sleeps in the envelope box in the box office, but the Oxford Playhouse forcibly retired BC — Big Cat — four years ago, when its impromptu appearances on stage and its fur balls in dressing rooms became too much. BC’s departure to a little old lady down the road so divided the crew that the stage manager and chief electrician did not speak to one another for a year.
In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S.Eliot gave us Gus," the Cat at the Theatre Door".
Gus was old and wise, but there was something of the luvvy in him when he said: "I have played in my time every possible part ..." Perhaps it was an element of actorish rivalry that hastened the theatre moggy’s demise.
The most celebrated of today’s theatre cats are the pair at Shakespeare’s Globe, a theatre which could not really afford to ignore the tradition. Jack and Cleo (stage names Portia and Brutus) took up their duties a couple of years ago, and since then even Turkish television has been in to film them. Nina Jacobs, the theatre’s publicist, admits to finding the copious media coverage of the cats "rather galling".
"When we’re trying to focus on the shows," she says, "cat publicity is not top of my priority list."
The theatre is a superstitious place and for a long time cats were thought to bring luck to the house. Richard Huggett, in his book The Curse of Macbeth, even suggests that a cat’s deposit in the dressing room is the luckiest of all omens, and reveals that this happened to Noël Coward on the first night of The Vortex. The show went on to be a great success.
The theatre cat tradition began, so popular theory has it, back in pre-Shakespearean days when sailors coming ashore for a quiet life found employment backstage thanks to their familiarity with knots and rigging.
These mariners turned stagehands brought with them the ship’s cats, both for companionship and for pest control. The eradication of vermin was especially necessary in those days because the theatre audience came laden with food: to eat while they were being entertained and to throw at the stage when they were not. A bad show was very good news for anything with whiskers.
As time passed, however, the cats did more than keep pests at bay: they provided reminiscences for wistful retiring thespians.
The actor Jon Holliday recalls a 1951 performance of White Cargo, at the Palace Theatre in Redditch, in which Felicity Kendal’s father Geoffrey was co-star. "The set was a hut in Africa, and the story was all about the white man’s burden and how the heat and the demon drink destroy man’s morals," Holliday says.
"I was on stage with Geoffrey on the opening night, when on strolled the theatre tabby. Ignoring us, it walked leisurely to centre stage and peered over the footlights at the audience. ‘Get that tiger out of here,’ commanded Geoffrey."
Some cats have survived in the West End, but they lead a rather less glamorous existence, confined almost exclusively to front of house. Marilyn (after Monroe) and Vivian (Leigh), for example, are habitually to be found stretched out on top of box-office computers in the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street. "Marilyn spends so much of her time asleep that we sometimes worry that she’s passed on," says Simon Francis, the theatre manager.
The Albery, situated in a nest of restaurant-lined alleys in St Martin’s Lane, is Top Cat territory. Its two pets are called Girl Cat and Boy Cat ("because of what they used to do to each other") and, as their names suggest, they are a savvy pair, acquired originally because of a burgeoning mouse problem.
Although still in the early stages of his career, Boy Cat has already eaten Princess Margaret’s bouquet at a gala evening. During a performance of Pygmalion he walked across the stage, jumped down into the audience and sat in a vacant seat in the front row, where one of the audience stroked him for the rest of the show.
In Five Guys Named Moe both cats got stuck under a box on stage and refused to come out until the tap-dancing began over their heads, whereupon they made a circuit of the auditorium, chased by ushers.
Today’s cats are rarely allowed anywhere near the cast, but that has not always been the case. Beryl Reid, a cat enthusiast who took the Lyric’s pet, Fleur, home with her, maintained that theatre cats were an effective antidote to stage-fright.
"The act of stroking a cat is a great reliever of tension and brings down the blood pressure," she wrote.
One of Reid’s favourites was Beerbohm, former resident of what is now The Gielgud. An aristocratic tabby whose portrait still hangs in the corridor towards the stalls, Beerbohm used to put in an appearance on stage at least once in every production, testing the actors’ ability to improvise.
Although he was friendly to most cast members, his general policy was to select one — Peter Bowles, Michael Gambon or Penelope Keith, for example — for special treatment and occupy their dressing room for the duration.
Beerbohm’s celebrity earned him several mentions on Desert Island Discs, and he is the only theatre cat to have been honoured with a front-page obituary in The Stage newspaper.
The most heartfelt actress- cat affair was developing a few streets away at much the same time as Beerbohm’s ascendancy. In 1974 the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, was enjoying some success with Billy, starring Michael Crawford, so when it acquired a new cat the stagehands called it Ambrose after a scene in the show.
Ambrose was dressed permanently in evening wear — jet black coat with a white chest — and was generally loved by all. But he did enjoy his live appearances, which more than aggravated the leading man.
The audience would laugh and sometimes applaud. "It was difficult to keep a straight face," recalls Marianne Price, who was playing opposite Crawford at the time, but the actor himself was incensed. "He hated being upstaged," says Price. All sorts of dark threats were made, but the backstage crew lined up in solid defence of Ambrose.
The actress Avis Bunnage was part of the production and she, too, fell in love with Ambrose.
It was all she could do to tear herself away from the theatre when Billy came to an end. After leaving, Bunnage began a remarkable 12-year correspondence with both Ambrose and Thora Tolson, the theatre secretary, which reveals a fierce jealousy for Ambrose’s affections.
In May 1976 Bunnage wrote to Tolson: "I think about Ambrose constantly, and miss him very much. If he does show any signs of pining, I’m sure you will let me know, and trust that ‘they’ will let me take him. I know John feeds him ... but a lot of men don’t understand ..."
In 1983 both Bunnage and Ambrose were unwell. In August, Bunnage wrote again to Tolson with a cheque. "Please accept the enclosed towards Ambrose’s expenses. Whatever it costs to make him well, I will pay." Ambrose died in 1985 and Bunnage was heartbroken. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has not had a cat since.
The one cat we can be assured of surviving, as his colleagues grow increasingly impractical, is Old Possum’s wise Gus. For all the nostalgia, it may be best that way. As the 17th-century proverb goes: "Keep no more cats than will catch mice."