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The world famous Cats comes to Belfast: Just the purr-fect role

They say curiosity killed the cat, so when the famous musical arrived in town, Frances Burscough just has to get a taste of what it's like to be a star

Cats, the world famous, all-singing all-dancing musical opened at Belfast's Grand Opera House last week. I'd never seen it performed although I'd heard so much about it over the years.

Indeed, when I was a fashion student in Manchester in the Eighties, it was a huge influence on costume, make-up and contemporary style throughout the fashion world.

I'd also been a fan of the poet TS Eliott since my school days and this entire production is based on one of his collections of children's poetry.

So naturally, I was delighted to be invited to the opening night and to see at last, and at first hand, what all the fuss had been about.

Wow. What can I say?

The word "spectacle" springs to mind above all else. It's not just thrillingly entertaining but the whole show is one long visual spectacle that evolves between scenes with incredibly clever choreography, breathtaking design and some truly elaborate stage props.

Don't ask me to explain the story because there isn't really one as such. But who cares, really. When something is so entertaining there really isn't a dull moment where you would notice.

Of course rapturous applause duly followed, including a lengthy standing ovation... during which I had a crazy idea.

Whilst I was gawping at the splendour of it all like a kid outside a sweetshop, I wondered what if... what if I could get to meet the cast and a sneaky look behind the scenes of the world's most successful musical? And maybe join in somehow? How wonderful would that be?

So I contacted the GOH press office and it seems my reputation as an adventurous, closet thespian/roving reporter had already preceded me because they said 'yes' straight away.

Within a couple of days I was there at the stage door waiting to be welcomed to the ultimate cats' chorus by the company manager himself, the very charming Stephen Diamond.

First I was taken up to the dressing rooms where I was introduced to one of the lead players, Alice Redmond, who portrays the character 'Jennyanydots the Gumby Cat' so brilliantly.

Of course, I didn't recognise her at first without her full slap on and not even remotely furry or feline-looking. In fact she looked positively normal! But as soon as I heard her voice, I remembered her vivid portrayal of the sleepy cat by day with a secret double life by night, mollycoddling the resident house mice.

One of the cutest cats of them all, in my opinion, and Alice truly did her justice. Alice then proceeded to give me the ultimate Cats makeover, using all the tricks of the trade she has perfected over hundreds of performances, to transform me into a replica of her own character.

This took over an hour altogether, each stage in the make-up process being such a fine art that it had to be done with intricate precision. First I was prepared, like a blank canvas, ready for the colour with a white pan-stick primer. Then shading in assorted orange, rust and red built up the contours of my face to take on a more pointy, feline aspect.

Then the details were slowly and carefully painted on... the tiger-like stripes markings around the eyes, the long swirly eyelashes, the cute black button nose and the fine ginger whiskers. Meanwhile, as each layer was applied it had to be set with face powder, locking it in place to stop streaking, running or smudging. It was certainly a painstaking process requiring an incredible amount of skill, but the moment I saw my new alter-ego in the mirror, I knew it was worth it. I actually started to purr with delight.

Then I was taken through to the wardrobe department where I met Steve Frizzell, the wonderful wig master who was spending the precious time before the next performance remodelling and preparing the wigs from last night's show. Even getting the wig fitted was a revelation in itself. First my hair had to be separated into sections and twisted into neat pin-curls which were then sprayed to fix in place.

Next he measured and stretched a strip of flesh-coloured bandage over the hairline to cover over all of my natural roots. Then he carefully moulded a nylon skull-cap over my entire scalp, to keep my real hair as flat and well-concealed as possible.

Only then did he smooth the wig carefully in place, primping and preening it from every angle until he was happy that I looked the image of Jennyanydots.

By this time I was completely in character, miaowing, purring and shimmying like I was born on a hot tin roof. So when I was taken down onto the actual stage for a photoshoot, I felt like the cat that had got the cream too.

Okay, I may be a bit too old for all that caterwauling and cavorting in real life but it would have been rude not to rise to the occasion.

So I purred, stretched, rolled around and arched my spine for the camera... and then did my back in, in the process!

Just for the sheer fun of it all, and because I was so reluctant to give it all back and return to normality, I decided to go over the road to the Crown Bar for some proper Belfast craic.

Unfortunately, the bar tender wouldn't pour my Guinness into a saucer for me to lap up in true kitty character, so I had to make do with a pint glass and some cat-calls across the crowded bar by punters who must have thought they were hallucinating. Miiiiaaaaowwwwwwwwwwww...

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