(seen at the afternoon performance on 19th February 2020)
There is everything positive to be said for any cast who, faced with a huge suburban theatre / small audience / wet weekday winter matinee situation turns up the energy and make a miserable London afternoon steamy Berlin night.
A familiar Kander and Ebb classic, American writer Cliff Bradshaw seeks inspiration in 1930 Berlin, the rise of the Nazi Party. He lodges with Fraulein Schneider and meets English Cabaret star Sally Bowles. The Emcee is our narrator and guide to a world of decadence and fluid sexuality where everybody is, for the moment, wilkommen – as designer Katrina Lindsay’s bold “WILL KOM MEN” sign spells out to envelop the show.
Rufus Norris gave this production a make-over in 2006 which ran at two West End theatres and has been touring successfully ever since. It’s a very different animal from the monkey’s first encounter with the show at the Donmar, when Alan Cumming and Sam Mendes used a tiny space to land individual knock-out punches one to a customer.
Norris creates arguably a more authentic to its origins show on a far larger scale. The advantage is towering spectacle – the Emcee (John Partridge) first appears in a 007 Eye, his swastika operating puppet Germans in “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” close the first half, and in between there’s a never-ending supply of “Two Ladies” bedmates, lavish party and club sequences. It is visual and well-defined musical cues that for the most part work pretty effectively in place of intimacy to deliver both atmosphere and emotion.
Partridge opts for a certain level of cold detachment, interacting with the show on his own terms in bursts of manic energy. The choice makes sense as he wrings maximum impact from the final levelling sequence.
His club’s female lead Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) is a soul bound together by sticking plasters that cannot hold. Lacking the grace of dance movement of those around her, she (and they) mask it with soul bearing truthful acting and a “Maybe This Time” solo that holds a vast auditorium in awe. Title number “Cabaret” involving two mirrors comes close, but the earlier number truly is Hayworth’s moment.
In her education of Cliff Bradshaw (Charles Hagerty) the differences are clear. Hagerty acquits himself well as a stranger to situations he cannot understand. As written, it’s difficult to find the emotional arc within the part as he is recorder rather than active participant, but he manages animation and to convince us that a return to Germany under that regime is something he is committed against.
Anita Harris (Fraulein Schneider) chooses not to produce the expected “Mittle European” accent others would. Her “So What?” is taken too quickly without the pace such an accent enforces, but with lover Herr Schultz (James Paterson) there is no doubt that a pineapple could entwine their hearts forever. Paterson’s increasingly desperate denials as the show progresses and his country casts him out are impressive to the point this audience member prayed his story would have turned out differently from the inevitable extermination implied.
Basienka Blake turns in a wonderful character performance as sailor-addicted Fraulein Kost, a lovely creation both sensual and desperate. Nick Tizzard as Ernst Ludwig is given an equally strong key role evolving from German everyman to National Socialist Organiser without losing actively audience trust - even as he loses our goodwill as he sheds his humanity.
The unrelenting energy of the ensemble has already been noted, but it’s worth praising Dance Captain Oliver Roll for his efforts as they present a well-choreographed (Javier De Frutos) set of lengthy routines, that they would repeat again that evening. Tightly drilled, yet fresh and providing humour, pathos and a moving final sequence, they were a constant stalwart responding to the excellent orchestra under Phil Cornwell.
On the minus side, Norris does throw away “Don’t Tell Mama” at the back of the stage (if you are going to include it, you may as well do it properly). He also jettisons giving Bradshaw the very final word, opting for a slightly overdone post-script which could perhaps have been staged simultaneously with greater elegance. The other slight failure is in the use of nudity and scanty outfits, neither of which hit levels of shock or sensuality as they might. Possibly due to the larger stage and venue, possibly the lack of creativity.
Still, it’s a sound production in the best of hands with the current cast, so leave your room to hear this music play if it heads in your direction during 2020.
Photo credit: The Other Richard. Used by kind permission.