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Jellicle clown: Frankie Thompson on her unmissable feline fever dream Catts | Stage

Was there ever a cat so clever? Move over Mr Mistoffelees, because Frankie Thompson has magicked up one of this year’s smartest stage shows with Catts, an unsettling and often wildly funny hour of clowning. It’s a feline fever dream that starts as a riff on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s whiskery musical and finds Thompson mashing up viral cat videos, clips of Postman Pat’s puss Jess and The Simpsons’ Crazy Cat Lady, and lip-syncing along to Elaine Paige and a prepubescent Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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In a Puma T-shirt, her hair in buns like tuffy ears, she prowls around the audience, pounds a catwalk-treadmill and relieves herself in a litter tray. Thompson’s feat is to do all this while conveying an unflinching sense of the overwhelming pressures and malaise that send so many of us seeking respite in funny cat videos. It’s a show that sounds raucous but is emotionally raw, drawing on her experience of mental illness.

We meet up one morning in Soho, where the show arrives this month after a celebrated Edinburgh fringe run. I’m anticipating swapping pet pics with a fellow kitty-lover but here’s a surprise: “I’m very, very allergic to cats,” she says. Her mum finally got one when Thompson moved out. “And it’s the worst cat,” she continues, her smile souring. “Bitch Cat, we call it. The nastiest cat I’ve ever met. Hates me. It’s furious when I come home.”

Frankie Thompson in Catts at the Edinburgh fringe.
On the prowl … Frankie Thompson in Catts at the Edinburgh fringe. Photograph: 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 juggernaut. She did a Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer routine at her Jellicle-themed sixth birthday party. Catts was partly inspired by her artists interest in the commercial pressures on and in the West End especially. 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 of 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 about the sexual behavior of politicians instead, but researching it left her “depressed and angry”. She sought solace from cats – and finding such ways to cope became the theme of Catts itself, concocted with Thompson’s partner, Liv Ellowho directs the show.

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

The personal accomplishment she eventually singles out, though, is substantially different from a glowing review or audience ovation. As a recovering anorexic, Thompson “can’t eat in front of people”. But in Edinburgh one night, “I managed to go out for dinner”. It’s a celebratory achievement, she says, clearly proud “that I’ve come that far”.

Catts, which is a highly physical show performed in gym gear, also brought the challenge of working out in public – a difficult proposition because of 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 would wake each day at 5am to swim, then walk for miles just chewing gum, and return 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 was walking so much but I was totally paralysed, stuck. Chewing and chewing, walking and walking, not swallowing. It was the darkest time.”

This was after Thompson had been discharged, at 18, from child and adolescent mental health services after urgent treatment for anorexia. “I think I was processing a lot of that treatment because it is traumatic.” Returning home from hospital, she turned on her laptop to check her email and, horrifyingly, courtesy of the algorithm drawing on her search history, “the first thing that came up was an advert 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. Photograph: PA

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

For Thompson, “the taboo and the judgment” of anorexia remain prevalent. “My experiences of mental illness are ugly, erratic and irrational. I don’t think we’ve reached, as a society, being able to talk about that.” This is why she wants to be disgusting on stage.

A different type of fringe show from Catts might have ended with a personal reveal of the performer’s own history. But, in order that “people with lots of 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 bashing those people, it’s brave to make that work – there is pressure on an artist to say, ‘This is how I solved it, how I recovered.'” For me, that wasn’t my experience. It’s hell on earth, it’s painfully awful. An ongoing battle.”

Wildly funny ... Frankie Thompson in Catts.
Wildly funny … Frankie Thompson in Catts. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The show has a handmade quality – an aesthetic she dubs “shitty DIY” – and it’s unsurprising to hear 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 crafted from rubbish: “making the best out of things” as she puts it. (She has an online shop selling paper-and-wire T rex and matchboxes filled with tiny dreaming figures.) That show can lead people to treat Thompson like a “little girl in a matchbox” herself, she says. When she’s performing as a clown, like in Catts, “everyone’s scared of me”.

Thompson was a member of the youth companies run by the Royal Court, Soho theater and the Pleasance, with whom she took a murder mystery to Edinburgh in 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 services call “a complex care team” – a group of individuals and influences who each provide specialist support and guidance. “Duckie is definitely on the CCT.” Who else? “Rik Mayall is on it – and he’s been dead for a while. But that’s fine, it’s complex!”

She found another vital home at Camden People’s theater – “they genuinely back artists and allow people to take risks” – and staged her first solo shows there, including Forbruker in 2019. “It was an advert break for an hour – with me doing all the adverts,” she explains. The Sex Party, the political piece she put 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 pair also want to appear in a show together. “Liv has gender dysphoria and I have body dysmorphia and they’re more similar than you might think – and also set each other off all the time.”

When creating Catts the pair were constantly modulating the humour. What were its earlier iterations like? “There were a couple of versions with a dog coming on stage,” she laughs. “But it was too stressful to do that in Edinburgh.” Thompson’s work blurs boundaries between theater and comedy. For some earlier versions, “we went much darker and people would just laugh – it was devastating because you’re like, ‘This is the serious bit!” but the mix comes out differently each time, depending on the audience and how she feel. “People can just take it as a funny cat show,” she insists. “That’s fine.”

Frankie Thompson: Catts is at Soho theater, London21-26 November.

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