Book: Joe Masteroff
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Rebecca Frecknall
Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret is as much installation as it is theatre, taking over the whole of London’s Playhouse, which has been transformed into the legendary Kit Kat Club. Tickets may be expensive, but it’s a trip worth taking.
The entrance is through the old stage door, and patrons, schnapps in hand, must pass through labyrinthine backstage corridors. Some performers are still putting on their faces while others are having a sing-along around a piano. A golden bar adorned with Jean Cocteauesque murals is the centrepiece where more dancers entertain the crowds. And the show hasn’t even begun!
A small circular stage lies in the middle of the auditorium where the audience is placed on both sides while the band takes up residence in the boxes. There’s a faded glamour in Tom Scutt’s design from the velvet seats to the beaded lamps that hang above the stage; It’s Années Folles meets the Weimar Republic.
And, of course, as the lyrics to the opening number Willkommen proclaim, here in the Kit Kat Club ‘life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful’. Eddie Redmayne is beautiful, too, as the Emcee, our host for the evening. He plays homage to Joel Grey’s Oscar-winning performance from the 1972 film, especially in his guttural accent, but while Grey was playful Redmayne is sinister, more directly charting Berlin’s shift from licentiousness to Nazism.
His performance is so spectacular, that next year’s Olivier award must be his. He sings and dances provocatively, dashing around, above, and even out of the stage. But his physicality –a perfect fit for the 1930s – is also deliberate, and this brings out the mercenary objectivity of the character. He’s not there to give sympathy,
Also unsympathetic and brilliant is Jessie Buckley’s Sally Bowles. At the Kit Kat club she’s suitably filthy in her opening number Don’t Tell Mama, where she tells the audience that her uncle is her agent and her grandmother has joined the chorus line. But backstage, she is almost plain and more reserved and more fragile than Liza Minnelli’s Sally. Instead of performing Maybe This Time and the Finale as the usual showstoppers Buckley turns the songs into broken-hearted ballads. ‘Going like Elsie’ doesn’t feel so life- affirming now.
If only there were more of Redmayne and Buckley, but Frecknall is loyal to the original musical instead of the film. The focus is on Fraulein Schneider, the respectable owner of a Berlin boarding house and one of her lodgers, the Jewish Herr Schultz. The politics of Hitler’s increasing power are mainly played through their secret love affair, but it’s clear why Bob Fosse’s ditched the couple from the film. The songs they sing to each other – one even about a pineapple – are just not as good as the songs in the Kit Kat club. Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey give charming performances, but their story doesn’t give us the fireworks of Sally’s life, or match the transformation of the Emcee and his dancers into grey automatons.
Rising star Omari Douglas (It’s A Sin, Constellations) is Clifford, the young bisexual American who falls in love with Sally. He perhaps overplays Clifford’s dullness but he eventually becomes firmer in his righteousness during the second half. Anna-Jane Casey is both funny and chilling as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s oversexed lodger.
Always busy, either on stage or around it, are the Kit Kat girls and boys, dancing faultlessly and there is not a chair in sight. Because of the limited space Julia Cheng’s choreography is economic but still occasionally echoes Bob Fosse’s from the film. Scutt’s costume design has the dancers, on loan from Underbelly, in a state of undress for most of the first hour. They are sexy, sensual and deliciously queer, and this state of déshabillé continues the idea that we are backstage with them, perhaps making this the most intimate Cabaret ever.
So intimate in fact that this Cabaret is about broken people trying to survive when the world has gone mad. Some manage to escape; others choose to stay.
Runs until 1 February 2022