An old cat perfects a new trick

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 1994, 12:00am

HE has most often played the role of a malarial madman, a dirty old man, a wretch who doesn't do one nice thing all night, a bandit chief.

But somehow, playing the gentle, ageing and much-loved Old Deuteronomy in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats seems a far more appropriate role for the portly, kind-faced John Bolton-Wood.

And of his 92 opera roles and three musicals, this latest is, he said, his favourite.

But it was nearly not to be.

''I went from playing King Nebuchadrezzar on Friday night, to crawling on the floor wearing a tail and knee pads on Monday morning,'' said Mr Bolton-Wood.

This concerned him more than the audition, when he had been asked to turn a cartwheel.

''I'd never done one before,'' said the 52-year-old lyric baritone.

''But I'd watched the pirate king in the Pirates of Penzance do them every night for 294 performances so I thought I knew how.'' Indeed he did, flipping neatly, landing on his feet, and the role of ''Old Deut''.

Most of the cast is 20-25 years younger than Mr Bolton-Wood, who is the oldest member, appropriately playing the oldest cat.

''I have learned to perfect my cartwheel with Mungojerrie's help,'' he said.

But the audience can't hold back a collective smile when the plump, arthritic old cat, in his huge, shaggy wool coat, does a single cartwheel at the end of the performance.

Still, it took some encouragement from his agent, and perhaps the realisation that even the young cast members were feeling the strain, to persuade him to persevere with the rigorous routine.

''During rehearsals, I would stay away from the mirrors so I could imagine I looked as beautiful as the other cats,'' Mr Bolton-Wood laughed.

''Cats challenges everyone and that is what I look for in a part.'' Like Old Deuteronomy, Mr Bolton-Wood has a few words of ''understanding, knowledge and wisdom'' to impart to aspiring performers.

''I tell them to look carefully at the role and decide whether they can do it seven or eight times a week without injury,'' he said.

''One of the joys for me of performing in Cats is that I am working with kids from all different parts of the theatre and we all teach one another.'' He enjoys, too, the proximity to the audience, adding that the best time is intermission when the audience climbs up to talk to him sitting alone on stage.

''In Korea, I had an interpreter sitting with me to help answer questions,'' he said.

''I never tire of meeting the audience and I get far more fan mail than when I sing in operas.'' He gets to meet ''a few crazies'' too.

''There was a funny lady in Sydney who used to run the Russell Hotel for Cats (from the show) and would send cartons of Kit Kats back stage at interval,'' said Mr Bolton-Wood.

''She would bring in photos of cats, long dead, and ask me to pray for them. She saw 40 shows.

''Then there were the two sisters who came to 100 shows and always sat in the same seats. Yet they never came up on stage to speak to me.

''People see their pets in the characters on stage.

''It transports the audience from their lives to another world. That's the magic of the show.

''People love to come and sit in a rubbish dump and see life through the eyes of a cat.

''It's a gift of a role for any actor,'' said Mr Bolton-Wood who will notch up his 1,374th performance of Old Deuteronomy in the second season opening of Cats tonight.