Book: Joe Masteroff
Music & Lyrics: John Kander & Fred Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Based on the 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret follows the decadent highs and eventual crashing lows of the last days of Weimar Germany at the cusp of the rise of National Socialism. Existing in a free-thinking bubble of its own, 1920s Berlin was a cultural and intellectual melting pot of dubious morality that attracted the brightest and best to its hazy glow. Christopher Isherwood described the city as having a “smoky sexuality” and this is precisely the evocation that Director Rufus Norris creates in this visually stunning production.
Cabaret has been through many re-writes and reconceptions since the 1966 Broadway original was staged. However, Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics remain inconic and perfectly punctuate Masteroff’s innovative book, in this latest version of the show – a revival of the 2012 touring production.
The story centres on the lives of the various characters who perform at and frequent the eponymous Kit Kat Klub in Berlin but this narrative is interspersed with cabaret vignettes from the club which provide social commentary on the main action whilst simultaneously charting the political and social changes affecting interbellum German society.
Holding the ring (quite literally) on all of this is the central character of the Emcee played with a manic brilliance by John Partridge. The Emcee is our de facto narrator and has no underpinning character to call his own. In that context this role has the potential to become an overpowering pantomime act distracting from the main action. However, Partridge, despite his liberties with the fourth wall, avoids this skilfully and gives us a highly emotionally charged portrayal that feels like the physical embodiment of the club (and by extension Berlin society) itself. Playful and sexual, yes – but with a hard-edged intensity and dangerous glint in his eye, a characterisation that feels far more menacing than titillating.
This uneasy combination of menace and playfulness underpins the Kit Kat Klub sketches throughout Act One leaving the audience feeling like a trapped mouse being batted idly between a cat’s paws. The sheer physical prowess of the cabaret performers, their unabashed display of strength and the, at times, aggressively sexual choreography from Javier de Frutos all add to this edgy vibe so that the cabaret performances feel like an attack on the audience. No flimsy burlesque here! The culmination of this is a breathtaking Act One finale performance of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ which left me mesmerised.
The part of Sally Bowles is played by Kara Lily Hayworth who is undoubtedly an incredibly gifted performer and her portrayal of the self-destructive party girl from Mayfair is engaging and pacy but her performance falls a hair’s breadth short of achieving full emotional synthesis with the audience and especially in the big solo musical numbers. Had this connection been made successfully it would have turned captivating performances into real spine tinglers.
Other stand-out individual performances come from Anita Harris as Fraulein Schneider and James Patterson as Herr Schultz. Their unlikely love story is played with an understated honesty that makes it as heart-warming as it is ultimately heartbreaking and without any whiff of sentimentality that could have so easily invaded. Harris is especially watchable and brings to her role a poise and grace mixed with twinkle-eyed mischief that makes her characterisation irresistible.
As we progress through Act Two toward the decline of Berlin club culture and the rise of the Nazi Party with all its sinister ramifications this production really excels. The germination of the societal conditions that led ultimately to the systematic persecution and industrialised killing of millions of Jews and other minority groups across Europe is exposed through a very human lens and the songs ‘If You Could See Her’ and ‘What Would You Do?’ hang heavy in the air.
This production is not flawless. Whilst the scene changes ensure the transitions happen smoothly and help to give the whole production its pace they are occasionally too intrusive on the preceding scene. Also the highly stylised nature of the ensemble performances sometimes serve to dampen their energy which left me feeling colder than I think I was meant to.
That being said this production is a feast for the eyes with some outstanding individual performances and I left the theatre feeling challenged, moved and entertained in equal measure and judging by the spontaneous standing ovation at the end I don’t think I was alone.
Runs until Saturday 29th February 2020