“There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies. And there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany… And it was the end of the world.”
The Kit Kat Club is the place to go if you want to leave your troubles behind; based on the past five years (at least), I’d say that’s an idea which appeals to pretty much everyone in the UK right now. It’s lucky, then, that Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Kander & Ebb’s musical Cabaret has taken over London’s Playhouse Theatre and completely transformed it into the notorious Weimar venue – this is a theatrical experience like no other. Even the lengthy queue to gain entry feels like part of the event, as you are slowly ushered through one of the doors and down into the bowels of the theatre. The show spills out of the auditorium and inhabits every nook & cranny in the most jaw-dropping fashion, with the pre-show revels then following you as you make your way to your seat.
(I do want to offer a practical warning to anyone with any kind of sensitivity to overcrowded spaces: it is incredibly overwhelming once you get into the foyer, especially if you then have to make your way to the stairs to the dress & upper circles, as people are gathered at the bar & also watching the performers. It is something that the theatre will need to address before long.)
Struggling American author Clifford Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to try and finish his next novel, but a chance encounter with Ernst Ludwig on the train leads him straight to the Kit Kat Club on his first night – where he first meets charismatic singer Sally Bowles. Sacked without notice, Sally arrives at Clifford’s lodgings the next day and manages to charm her way into staying; a few days turns into a few months and, though Clifford is enjoying her company, he’s no closer to getting his book finished and money is continually tight. Seemingly in an act of friendship, Ernst offers to send a few more English pupils his way, as well as send him off on well-paid trips to Paris to bring back “baubles” for a good cause – following some life-changing news from Sally, Clifford immediately accepts, but will he live to regret his decision..?
Ever since I first read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels I’ve been waiting for a production of this musical that feels like it’s singing from the same hymn sheet – and this time I think I’ve finally found it. For starters, staging it in the round (and with a club setup) suits the Emcee-led songs a lot better; these are inspired by the kinds of songs you’d hear in a Weimar cabaret – usually satire dressed up to initially appear frivolous or light-hearted, but in reality it’s biting social commentary. They’re given so much more emphasis by being performed in this way. And if I had a hat on I’d have to take it off to Tom Scutt for his set & costume designs; the style utilised for the Kit Kat Club performers is just seedy enough to feel properly authentic. It feels like a deliberate choice not to go too swish & glam, instead playing up the idea of the forbidden pleasures that these clubs could play host to. Any glitz at all is steadily lost as time progresses and the Nazis become more prevalent, ultimately leading towards bland (yet dangerous) conformity.
The minimalist set (with suitcases doubling for chairs & beds) provides a certain dynamism, with some scenes almost overlapping as it hurtles along at a good pace. It also works well with the in the round setting – clearly Frecknall has the audience at the forefront of her mind, as the sightlines are generally pretty good everywhere (even way up on the edges of the upper circle). It’s also a lovely touch to house the orchestra in two dress circle boxes, overlooking the action. Julia Cheng has worked wonders with her choreography, considering she has a slightly more limited performance space to play with; it’s also not the OTT jazz hands style that is perpetuated by Strictly Come Dancing – it’s the cool & sophisticated (yet equally quite sleazy) kind that is really associated with the 1920s & 1930s.
The word ‘timely’ is definitely overused in theatre reviews, but if ever there were a moment to deploy it… As well as telling some emotional & personal stories, Cabaret covers the rise of fascism and the rampant anti-semitism which comes with it; just because our current leader is a scruffy, spunking, bulbous, moral vacuum of a man, doesn’t mean he & his party are harmless – the opposite, in fact. What sets this show apart from the rest is its willingness to confront uncomfortable truths about the human condition, and the variety of responses to catastrophic events; will you stand up for the oppressed, or look after number one?
And I’ve not even mentioned the performances yet. The show has been immaculately cast (Stuart Burt CDG), from the main company down to the ‘prologue’ performers.
Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy bring a youthful wonder to the blossoming relationship between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider – there’s a delightful awkwardness between them, and you genuinely feel the attraction & growing intimacy between them from the moment they first appear onstage together. This, of course, makes their story all the sadder as the show progresses. There’s a lack of songs for Clifford in this particular production, which does slightly waste Omari Douglas’ vocal talents, but he makes his presence felt nonetheless; Douglas portrays Clifford as a sensitive & principled man, at times hampered by his naïveté – especially where Sally is concerned.
Eddie Redmayne, who has dreamed for years of putting on such a production of Cabaret, revels in the role of the mysterious Emcee; at the beginning playful and (let’s face it) a bit of a tease, he becomes rather sinister by the very end. Redmayne is incredibly funny, though he’s also adept at quickly changing the tone when required – If You Could See Her instantly springs to mind (with a closing line which will always stop you in your tracks).
But it’s his co-star Jessie Buckley who steals the show as Sally Bowles. It must be a bit of a nightmare getting the right person for this role, as you obviously need a talented performer to be able to get through the rigours of a West End week, but as Sally isn’t meant to be that talented herself it’s a fine balancing act for whoever steps into her shoes. Buckley treads this line perfectly, opting for minimal frills in her many numbers – rather than following the current MT obsession with unnecessary vibrato or vocal runs, she focuses on putting as much power & emotion into her performances as possible. This comes to an astoundingly emotional climax with her heartbreaking rendition of the title track; the anger she projects simply takes your breath away – I’ve never seen the song interpreted that way before, and I never want to see it done any other way.
Yes, it’s a shame that many of the tickets have absolutely astronomical prices; I’m desperate to experience it from one of the tables, but some of us really can’t afford to blow £200 on a single show – no matter how much we love it. I would say that it is definitely worth giving some other shows a miss and saving up for a slightly more expensive ticket to this. (Or just win on the TodayTix lottery, if you’re one of those people who get all the luck on that app!) It is honestly worth making some theatre-based sacrifices for, even if you typically don’t enjoy musicals that much – it is a night out that you will never forget.
My verdict? A theatrical experience that you will never forget – Eddie Redmayne revels in the role of the Emcee, but Jessie Buckley steals the show.
Cabaret runs at the Kit Kat Club (Playhouse Theatre) until 1 October 2022. Tickets are available online. Proof of a negative lateral flow/PCR test is required to gain entry (text or email confirmation).