Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on John Van Druten’s “I Am A Camera” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Tales of Berlin”
Directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse – booking to 1 October 2022
This was always going to be one of the theatrical events of the year -two of this country’s brightest young stars in a Broadway classic re-imagined by one of the hottest new directors for decades- but I’m not sure anything prepared me for quite how earth-shatteringly sensational Rebecca Frecknall’s take on Cabaret would turn out to be. For a while there it looked as though outrage at the eye-wateringly high ticket prices would eclipse everything else about the show but it’s worth noting that there is a TodayTix lottery, and some of the super high priced seats include dinner and champagne, the reconfigured auditorium now being partly an opulently appointed supper club.
Whether you’re quaffing champers, or you’re quietly enjoying your free welcome drink, I don’t think you’re going to feel that you’ve wasted even a penny at this extraordinary piece of theatre, one that will be talked about for decades to come. The “immersive” aspect is stunningly well done: Tom Scutt’s design and Frecknall’s concept embraces the whole venue (aficionados of the Punchdrunk shows will find this pretty familiar): a beautiful woman regards herself in a dressing table mirror as we file past, another writhes on the floor to piano accompaniment behind a beaded curtain, moustached dancers of indeterminate gender disport on a balcony above the bar. It’s beautiful, a bit strange, quite sinister, and entirely transporting.
All of this would feel like a distraction though if the performance itself were not up to par. It’s rather more than that in fact: a wildly imaginative, exhilarating, brutally disturbing rendition of this most malleable of musicals that draws one into it’s intoxicating, hedonistic world then sends us reeling out into the night, with troubled hearts, dazzled eyes and our heads crammed with unforgettable images. Frecknall is too intelligent to make explicit the parallels between the rise of the Nazis with the sleaze, corruption and divide-and-rule horrors of our present government. It’s not hard to join those dots though, in the brief moments of terror where a moment of joy is punctured by an act of prejudice (there’s a shocking elision of the infamous Kristallnacht with the Jewish glass breaking wedding ritual, that lingers long in the mind afterwards) or in the sense of a party as the world burns.
It’s brought home even more tellingly by the final section, where all the extravagant trappings of 1930s Berlin are abandoned and the whole company appears in anonymous, timeless, beige suits, hollow-eyed everypeople sleepwalking like zombies towards the abyss. This chilling conclusion is foreshadowed by dolls at the end of the first half, clad in the same beige, set down by the cast on the endlessly revolving stage to the seductive, unsettling, anthemic strains of ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’. At that early point in the show it seems like a vaguely uncomfortable fantasy but by close of play it has become a grim reality. Shatteringly powerful, it begs the question how did these people get to this, and it resonates forward upon us: how did we get here?
Every new production of Cabaret tends to be a mishmash of the original musical which ran for over 1000 performances on Broadway in the 60s and transferred to London with a young Judi Dench as the West End’s Sally Bowles, with the major additions made for the iconic Bob Fosse movie starring Liza Minnelli. The last West End revival directed by Rufus Norris had a slightly different running order from the universally acclaimed Sam Mendes version which started at the Donmar before conquering Broadway. This one tells the story with a commendable fluidity and clarity, bleeding the seedy glamour of the Kit Kat Club sequences into the “real life” book scenes more effectively than I’ve ever seen before (the in-the-round staging inevitably helps with this).
Kander and Ebb created the terrific numbers ‘Mein Herr’ and ‘Maybe This Time’ for Minnelli and it’s hard to imagine Cabaret without them. The film was deceptive insofar as Liza was a phenomenal singer and radiated star quality, something Jean Ross (the real life model for the role) did not, according to Christopher Isherwood. In this production, Jessie Buckley is thrilling, only unleashing the full force of her impressive voice at certain moments. Her version of the title song is a spine-tingling apocalyptic howl of rage, and her rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ is deeply moving in it’s unhistrionic longing. She may be the best sung Sally Bowles in a long time but it’s the acting that really knocks us sideways though….we watch the sunshine drain out of her.
Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee is less immediately revelatory perhaps but It is a magnificent reading of the role, magnetic and reptilian. Try taking your eyes off him whenever he’s on stage. Omari Douglas’s Cliff is sensitively done, clearly gay but trying to make the best of his complicated feelings for Sally, and dynamically urgent when he realises the way things are going under the Nazis and plans to get his unconventional little family out of Berlin. Stewart Clarke and Anna-Jane Casey are both serious luxury casting, giving stellar, riveting performances as a pair of minor, but essential, figures in this creeping nightmare.
In a company without a single weak link, Liza Sadovy is a particular highlight. Her beautifully realised, kind, morally flexible Fräulein Schneider, along with Elliott Levey’s excellent suitor, reads as younger, more vital than usual, making one think that this couple could have had decades together if things has panned out differently, which in turn makes it all the sadder. Her ‘What Would You Do?’ performed high up on the revolving stage seems to indict the whole audience. It is a heartbreaking, heartstopping moment in a show full of them.
Julia Cheng’s choreography is edgy and angular, occasionally breaking into unforgettable stage pictures (look out for the scene near the end where Cliff is beaten up, which is lent a grim grace and beauty), performed by a fabulous ensemble who are as talented as they are intimidating. Isabella Byrd lights Tom Scutt’s stunning designs with breathtaking skill.
All in all, this is a powerful, savagely beautiful, endlessly exciting take on a Broadway classic. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it runs far longer than Redmayne and Buckley are contracted for: see it with them, see it without them, just see it. You’ll probably want to go again. Personally, I can hardly wait.