Jellicle clown: Frankie Thompson on his unmissable cat fever dream Catts

Wlike there ever a cat so smart? Move over Mr Mistoffelees, because Frankie Thompson has conjured one of the smartest stage shows of the year with Catts, a disturbing and often wildly funny hour of clowning. It’s a cat fever dream that begins as a riff on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s whiskey musical and finds Thompson mixing together viral cat videos, clips of Postman Pat’s kiss Jess and The Simpsons’ Crazy Cat Lady, and lip-syncing with Elaine Paige and a pre-pubescent. Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In a Puma T-shirt, her hair in buns like tufted ears, she roams the audience, pounding on a catwalk treadmill and wrapping herself in a cat litter box. Thompson’s achievement is to do all this while conveying an unflinching sense of the overwhelming pressure and nausea that drives so many of us to seek respite in funny cat videos. It’s a show that sounds cool but is emotionally raw, based on her experience with mental illness.

We meet one morning in Soho, where the show arrives this month after a celebrated fringe tour in Edinburgh. I expect to swap pet photos with another cat lover but here’s a surprise: “I’m very, very allergic to cats,” she says. Her mother finally got one when Thompson moved out. “And that is worst cat,” she continues and the smile sours. “Bitch Cat, we call it. The nastiest cat I’ve ever met. Hates me. It’s furious when I get home.”

Frankie Thompson in Cats at the Edinburgh fringe.
On the hunt… Frankie Thompson in Catts at the Edinburgh fringe. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

There was no family moggy growing up: Thompson’s feline fascination came from a much-played VHS of Lloyd Webber’s Stage Masters. She did a Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer routine at her Jellicle-themed sixth birthday party. Catts was partly inspired by her interest in the commercial pressures on performers and especially in the West End. Before it opened in 1981, a musical version of TS Eliot’s poems was seen as financial folly but Cats became one of the longest running shows in London.

The crowded marketplace at the Edinburgh festival brings its own pressure and Thompson hoped a one-woman version of Cats would stand out. She had planned to take a show on the sexual behavior of politicians instead, but the research left her “depressed and angry”. She sought solace from cats—and finding such ways to cope became the theme of Catts itself, composed with Thompson’s partner, Liv Ello, who directs the show.

Catts was financially supported by the Soho Theatre, panned by critics and sold out at the Pleasance Courtyard. It may seem like a total triumph by any measure of Edinburgh’s success, but when I ask how the month went, Thompson’s immediate response is generously collective, not individual. So many artists she knows suffered “financial damage” there, she says. “It seemed like the whole festival was run for landlords. I think that really needs to change.”

However, the personal achievement she eventually points out is significantly different from a glowing review or the audience’s standing ovation. As a recovering anorexic, Thompson “can’t eat in front of people”. But in Edinburgh one night, I “managed to go out to dinner”. It’s a solemn achievement, she says, clearly proud “that I’ve come this far”.

A very physical show performed in gym gear, Catts also posed the challenge of working out in public – a difficult proposition due to her history of exercise bulimia, a condition in which binge eating and over-exercising are combined. A few years ago, there was a summer when she woke up every day at 5:00 a.m. to swim, then she walked several kilometers and only chewed gum and returned home to eat several loaves of bread. She says how profound she finds the version of Neil Sedaka’s Going Nowhere performed by Lena Zavaroni, the singer diagnosed with anorexia as a child star. The treadmill on stage reflects that summer: “I walked so much but I was totally paralyzed, stuck. Chew and chew, go and go, don’t swallow. It was the darkest time.”

This was after Thompson had been discharged, at 18, from child and youth care after acute treatment for anorexia. “I think I processed a lot of that treatment because it’s traumatic.” Returning home from the hospital, she turned on her laptop to check her email and, horrifyingly, thanks to the algorithm based on her search history, “the first thing that came up was an ad for weight loss pills”.

One of the longest running shows in London … Elaine Paige backstage before the first preview of Cats.
One of the longest running shows in London … Elaine Paige backstage before the first preview of Cats. Photo: PA

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, inpatient hospital admissions in England for eating disorders has increased by 84% in the last five years. Children and young people are worst affected, with an increase of 90%. Thompson sees an overburdened, underfunded system operating in crisis mode: “They’re not good at dealing with things other than emergencies.”

For Thompson, anorexia “taboo and judgment” is still widespread. “My experiences of mental illness are ugly and erratic and irrational. I don’t think we as a society have reached the point of being able to talk about it. That’s why she wants to be disgusting on stage.

A different kind of fringe show from Catts might have ended with a personal revelation of the artist’s own story. But, so that “people with many different experiences of mental illness can understand it from their point of view”, she addresses her particular disorders obliquely. “With a lot of shows about eating disorders — and I’m not knocking those people, it’s brave to make it work — there’s pressure on an artist to say, ‘This is how I dealt with it, how I recovered.’ For me, it was not my experience. It’s hell on earth, it’s painfully horrible. An ongoing battle.”

Wild fun ... Frankie Thompson in Catts.
Wild fun … Frankie Thompson in Catts. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The show has a handmade quality – an aesthetic she calls “dirty DIY” – and it’s unsurprising to learn that she loved puppetry as a “hopelessly shy” child. Her parents are both artists and one of Thompson’s current projects is Space, a multimedia theater production that uses projections of a miniature circus she created out of junk: “making the best of things” as she puts it. (She has an online store that sells paper-and-wire T rexs and matchboxes filled with little dreamy figures.) That show might make people treat Thompson like a “little girl in a matchbox,” she says. When she performs as a clown, as in Catts, “everyone is afraid of me”.

Thompson was a member of the youth companies run by the Royal Court, the Soho Theater and the Pleasance, with whom she took a murder mystery to Edinburgh the summer she got her A-level results. By then she had discovered Duckie, the queer performance community based at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. “It was love at first sight,” she says. Over the years, she has come to create her own version of what mental health calls “a complex care team”—a group of individuals and influences, each providing specialist support and guidance. “Duckie is definitely on CCT.” Who else? “Rik Mayall is on it – and he’s been dead for a while. But it’s good, it’s complex!”

She found another important home at Camden People’s theater – “they really back artists and let people take risks” – and put on her first solo shows there, including Forbruker in 2019. “There was an ad break for an hour – where I did all the adverts, she explains. The Sex Party, the political piece she set aside for Catts, was developed at CPT. Billed as “part performative essay, part clown show, part animal documentary and part drag manifesto,” it will return in the future, directed by Ello. The couple also wants to appear in a show together. “Liv has gender dysphoria and I have body dysmorphia and they’re more alike than you’d think – and also turn each other on all the time.”

When creating Catts, the pair constantly modulated the humor. How were its previous iterations? “There were a couple of versions with a dog coming on stage,” she laughs. “But it was too stressful to do it in Edinburgh.” Thompson’s work blurs the lines between theater and comedy. For some earlier versions, “we went a lot darker and people would just laugh — it was devastating because you’re like, ‘This is the serious bit!'” But the mix comes out different every time, depending on the audience and how she’s feeling. “People Can just take it as a fun cat show,” she insists. “It is okay.”

Frankie Thompson: Catts is at the Soho Theatre, London, 21-26 November.

In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808-801-0677. In the United States, the National Eating Disorders Association is available at 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is on 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines are at Eating Disorder Hope.

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