Writer: Joe Masteroff
Based on Goodbye to Berlin by John Van Druten and the stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Choreographer: Javier De Frutos
Just the word “cabaret” – or kabaret with a ‘k’ when the action is set in Germany – instantly conjures up an elaborate image of flamboyance and indulgence in the gin-swilling and charleston-dancing lives of handsome young individuals in the 1920s. Indeed this Bill Kenwright production of the classical musical paints the image perfectly, and the audience is welcomed (“Willkommen”!) into the glitzy, decadent, quite sleazy Kit Kat Klub, where anything is acceptable.
The action in Cabaret is set around the end of 1930 and the beginning of 1931 in the city of Berlin, which had become at the time a kind of by-word for perverse, immoral and self-gratifying nightlife. There were no closing hours, no morality laws, and no censorship. Creative arts flourished as eager young artists in painting, writing, music, architecture and drama flocked to the city, lured by the easy lifestyle and temptations on offer. Into this lively city wanders struggling American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Charles Haggerty), whose head is easily turned by a pretty girl, but who is also a little ambivalent about his sexuality. Looking for cheap accommodation, he meets Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who comes over as a nice helpful guy but turns out to have a nasty political secret. Ludwig recommends approaching his friend Fraulein Schneider (the irrepressible Anita Harris) as she probably has a spare room in her boarding house. Cliff haggles for his room, but after all his landlady can take what life offers her, as she always has. If it’s an American writer in her house along with Fraulein Kost (Basienka Blake), the mature prostitute with a liking for fit sailors in the buff; and the elderly fruit shop owner Herr Schulz (James Patterson) who is sweet on her and brings her fruity offerings, “So What?”
Inevitably Cliff is drawn to the Kit Kat Klub with its leering, flamboyant Master of Ceremonies, unimaginatively named Emcee, played by a very talented John Partridge, and its troupe of dancing girls and boys with their cheeky, suggestive, even sleazy routines and skimpy costumes. The star of the show there is the English singer Sally Bowles, played by Kara Lily Hayworth, who in this famous role could give Liza Minelli a run for her money. Perhaps predictably Cliff and Sally become an item, she moves into his room when she loses her job, and all looks set to sort itself out with a move to the States and a baby.
But life is never smooth, and it was more bumpy than usual in Europe in the 30s, so a subtle shift in the atmosphere begins. Goose steps replace dance steps… swastikas appear… the nice guys turn nasty, and there are beatings and accusing symbols daubed on shop windows. In short, Adolf Hitler is rising to fame, the Nazis are here, and the Jews are suffering. Sally can’t face a new life – after all how many convenience abortions have there been in the past? – and neither can Fraulein Schneider face life married to a Jew. The cloud over Europe descends and envelopes the Klub, all is stripped bare – literally, “the smoky sexuality” (a phrase borrowed from Christopher Isherwood’s book) and heady lifestyle is closed down as Berlin’s golden age dies.
Everything about this production captures the era and the atmosphere perfectly. Transvestites, fashionable ‘beautiful people’, homosexuals and all others in between living side by side. The costumes are amazing: black sexy dance outfits leaving little to the imagination, many half-male, half-female; beautiful 20s style dresses; double-breasted suits; and plenty of colour and sparkly glitter. The sets are dull and interchangeable just as they should be; a bed gets plenty of wear; and there’s a wonderful little hatch in the Wilkommen sign that Emcee makes many uses of. The music punctuates the story, and although sometimes the words are a little difficult to catch, the songs tell us much about the characters. Numbers such as Perfectly Marvellous, Maybe this Time, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and What Would You Do” are very emotive, and display a tender side in contrast to the brash songs like The Money Song and Cabaret.
It’s impossible to leave the theatre without singing. It all goes wrong in the end, but it’s enjoyable to watch. Maybe don’t take your kids, but your granny and aunts will lap it up. Yes, there’s full frontal nudity, sleaze and crotch grabbing, but “its’s all in the best possible taste” and captures a snapshot of an era lost in time.
Runs until 7th March 2020