Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Cabaret’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 7th September and Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn from October 22nd to 26th.
I have never seen a production of ‘Cabaret’ quite like this before.
Rufus Norris’s reworking of the much-loved musical is astoundingly good. His inventive enhancement goes more deeply and darkly into Nazi mentality than previous productions and exposes the tarnished tinsel of cabaret life in 1930s bi-sexual Berlin for the façade it really was.
He dutifully preserves the show’s existing excitements – the razzmatazz of the songs and the glamour of the show girls – whilst giving choreographer Javier De Frutos full rein to fill the stage with ugly, ungainly and distorted routines. The vision of the piece is clear, as it builds to a stunningly sinister finale, with Auschwitz overtones, that silenced the audience.
It all opens with the classic black camera shutter image, though which emerges a more than slightly repulsive Emcee, with an oily kiss curl, lurid make up and chunky thighs, which he caresses ever so seductively. Casting a proper actor to play the role, rather than a TV talent show contestant, lays clear Norris’ intention that this is going to be no cosy Cabaret. John Partridge brings the house down with his Max Wall walk and has great fun in bed with two Rhine Maidens and a giraffe. But his faltering falsetto as he starts to sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ truly captures the counterpointed hope and dread of the German people at the rise the Third Reich. He also has the balls to strip naked and join the final nude tableaux.
Sally Bowles is an interesting case. In Kara Lily Hayworth’s hands she is no gushing show girl. Looking a little like a slimmed down Miranda Hart, she plays the Burlesque star as a frightened bird with a stubborn streak. This Sally does know what’s going on but, like many Germans at the time, she doesn’t want to leave her comfort zone to face the future. Her melancholy song ‘Maybe This Time’ -after she discovers she is pregnant – is tenderly poignant; and the reprise of the title song is presented before a hall of mirrors…reflecting her frailty and shattering her dream.
But the surprise of the show for me is the inspired casting of Anita Harris as the pragmatic Fraulein Schneider. With her wealth of experience and easy talent she turns the supporting role of the boarding house landlady into a star turn. The voice is perhaps a little huskier these days, but she has sprightly grace, perfect poise and a wonderful ability to express dignity in despair as she faces up to her dilemma. Her troubled ballad “What Would You Do?” beautifully encapsulates her moment of realisation. Does she marry the Jew who loves her … or take the cautious long view? It’s a powerfully nuanced performance that makes you believe her character really has survived war and revolution and can survive this new threat.
The whole scenario is seen through the eyes of the clean-cut American novelist, modelled on the author Christopher Isherwood, and played by the returning Charles Hagerty whose body language, when he discovers he’s been couriering for the Nazis, conveys the whole horror in one moment.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of clever comedy to enjoy in this upgrade. The show is liberally laced with absurd humour. But there were times when the laughter was overwhelmed by our knowledge of what was to come. And watching a show about the destruction of democracy on the very night our own House of Commons was debating whether to bother with it, was a not entirely comfortable experience.
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre
Visit www.theatresevern.co.uk for bookings & information about Theatre Severn