Director: Ellen McDougall
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
News that Chinese television did not broadcast the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, because the authorities there objected to two seemingly gay dancers and a few tattoos, reminds us that state censorship has never gone away completely and gives weight to this revue made up of songs banned in Germany by the Nazis.
The 85-minute show is a collaboration between the Gate Theatre and English National Opera, bringing together performers from diverse backgrounds. Baritone Peter Brathwaite and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray join forces with cabaret entertainers Lucy McCormick and Le Gateau Chocolat, a bearded, deep-voiced drag artist. It is a mix that sets a bizarre tone which sometimes suggests Gilbert and Sullivan being staged in a sleazy nightclub. The quartet is supported by three musicians – Geri Allen, Cassie Kinoshi and Fra Rustumji – and musical director Phil Cornwell.
Beginning with Lavender Song, the performers introduce themselves as “the buds that grow a little different”, dressing in exotic costumes to emphasise their point. The songs date from 1920 to 1939, sung in broadly chronological order. We are warned to expect nudity and lyrics of a sexual nature, but we get very little of either. The opening segments spring from the famously licentious Berlin of the pre-Third Reich era, yet most of the lyrics are innocent more than provocative. Bray and McCormick have to work hard to add lesbian touches to the flippant Best Girlfriends and it takes a long time for anything even mildly shocking to a modern British audience to come along.
Ellen McDougall’s uneven production is held together loosely by factual information and clowning, but some of the links feel amateurish and they drain the show of any energy that it has built up. As the audience gets showered in flowers and confetti and the stage becomes impossibly cluttered with props, we hear extracts from the Nazis’ encyclopaedia of banned songs and writers and we learn that entry therein could have been earned not only because of content deemed salacious or subversive, but through any connection whatsoever with black or Jewish people.
McCormick gives a star turn with Sex Appeal, a pastiche of Greta Garbo, but this marks the end of frivolity and things start to get better. Songs dealing with abortion and propaganda (should we call it fake news?) feature, before the performers take early (and lengthy) bows. The show’s real meat comes as an encore, when we hear expressions of outrage at racist persecution and the banning of inter-race marriages, sung with power and passion. It comes as a relief that, at last, the show has given us something to really savour.
Runs until 9 June 2018 | Image: Helen Murray