What’s New Pussycat?

What’s On recently caught up with Dame Arlene Phillips, the choreographer behind brand-new ’60s-set comedy musical What’s New Pussycat?, which receives its world premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre next month...

Take the hit songs of one of the most famous singers ever to come out of Wales, combine them with one of the earliest English novels, and the result is a brand-new musical called What’s New Pussycat?, which receives its world premiere at Birmingham Repertory Theatre next month. 

Songs made famous by Sir Tom Jones form the basis for an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s influential novel from 1749, The History Of Tom Jones: The Foundling. 

Swinging London of the 1960s provides a backdrop to the show’s unfolding storyline. It’s 1965, and although Tom Jones has rocked up in London with a broken heart, he’s full of ambition and boasts a booming voice. He soon encounters an exciting world of dancing, mods, miniskirts and great music. And while the audience revels in the romantic adventure that plays out on stage, one burning question remains unanswered: will the eponymous hero and ladies' man ever be reunited with his true love, who seems way too preoccupied with designing for Carnaby Street to contemplate taking a walk down the aisle?

While numbers such as It’s Not Unusual, Delilah and, of course, What’s New Pussycat? whisk the audience right back to Swinging London in the 1960s, the show’s choreography promises to be something to behold, with none other than Dame Arlene Phillips having taken the reins. 

Dame Arlene has been involved in the project for quite some time: “It goes back to the beginning of last year, when my agent called me and said that the producers were interested in me choreographing the show. I absolutely love the music of Tom Jones, the incredible, amazing songs, the richness of the musical arrangements and, of course, 1960s’ style, so I said I’d love to be a part of it.”

Arlene’s only encounter with the man they call The Voice actually took place back in the ’60s: “When I was in my 20s, there was an American choreographer called Claude Thompson, who was in England searching for dancers for Tom’s new TV show, This Is Tom Jones. He was looking for a dancer to feature in a solo spot. Juliet Prowse was the star dancer and there was a dance battle. She had to win by out-dancing me on a table - I eventually jump off - and I got picked for that part. It was so exciting!

“There was Tom, singing away, and my gosh, being so close to such a megastar was absolutely incredible. And that’s my only experience of Tom - but what an experience to have!” 

While the sprawling source material for What’s New Pussycat? is unlikely to be found on many bookshelves outside a university English Literature faculty, Arlene has been familiar with Henry Fielding’s story for most of her life: “I started reading it when I was younger, so I was aware of the novel. There’s no way that, in a musical lasting two hours, you could even begin to really tell a story that’s a very complex series from a long, long book. What’s New Pussycat? is set in the ’60s but definitely based on that story, without question. The way that it’s been written, and the way that our brilliant director, Luke Sheppard, has used and developed what the audience are going to see, is very clever.” 

While people of a certain vintage will no doubt recall Arlene’s 1970s dance troupe, Hot Gossip, Arlene herself only really came to widespread public attention in 2004, when she featured on the original judging panel of Strictly Come Dancing. 

“We knew from the start that Strictly was really attracting people to dance, without question. At the time, there were dance-shoe manufacturers going out of business because they couldn’t sell enough shoes. Strictly really changed that. It changed things for a lot of people - for schools that teach, for costume makers. The series always brings more and more people to dance.”

As theatrical productions reopen post-lockdown, Arlene has noticed how invested audiences seem to be in the shows they’re now watching: “Audiences have missed the feeling that theatre gives them; watching something and taking something away to talk about. Theatre is life-enhancing, and when you lose that, you lose a little bit of yourself and a little bit of life. Covid has been incredibly damaging. I opened a show two weeks ago - Grease The Musical - which had been postponed four times. The roar, the response from the audience, was massive. There was a real outpouring of every kind of feeling - laughing, crying, cheering, clapping - and that’s before the show’s even started!” 

So what can audiences expect when they settle down to watch What’s New Pussycat??

“So many songs that are heavy with big brass arrangements. You hear the music and it’s triumphant and rhythmical. There’s so much there to use as a choreographer! Also, a phenomenal visual design - a real feast for the eyes - and they’re going to love the story, too; there’s a lot of comedy in there. When people walk out of the theatre at the end of the show, they’re going to have a real spring in their step!” 

What’s New Pussycat? shows at The REP, Birmingham, from Friday 8 October to Sunday 14 November