Rendezvous in Bratislava – Camden People’s Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Theatre-Maker: Miriam Sherwood

Of all the theatre arts, cabaret is the one the most looks to the past for its forms and structure as we attempt to recapture the intimacy of the genre’s golden age. Miriam Sherwood’s new show, Rendezvous in Bratislava, which has its debut run at the Camden People’s Theatre, goes even further in staging historic segments from her grandfather’s cabaret shows while telling the eventful history of man she never met.

In large part a biographical lecture complete with demonstrative PowerPoint slides that show photographs, translations and useful socio-geographic information, the show covers the years 1930 to the early 1970s in some detail outlining Laco Kalina’s comedic talent couched in a context of ever-changing political regimes, danger and betrayal. A Slovak Jew, Kalina was of interest to the facists and later the Communists but as Sherwood’s production suggests he continued to believe in a ‘world where laughter would set us free.’

Named after Kalina’s 1950s cabaret of the same name that christened the new city theatre, Rendezvous in Bratislava plunders the performer’s extensive archive of cabaret scripts, of which he wrote over 500, as well as five published autobiographies from which Sherwood incorporates as many textual extracts as she can. It is a heartfelt homage to her grandfather and as personal as theatre can be as Sherwood evidently proud, touched and excited to be presenting this work stands before an audience.

And there is a good-natured, inclusive feel to much of the production, welcoming the audience with shots as they enter the auditorium, distributing copies of Kalina’s jokes from a collection found on A6 pages among his personal effects which individuals can read out, and openly enticing audience members on stage to act as the crowd scene for a New Year’s Eve party with glasses of prosecco. Sherwood and her team certainly have a talent for putting the audience at ease and are creative in their approach to audience participation.

But the balance between theatre and history lesson tips away from presenting Kalina’s cabaret work and instead spends far more time describing it. The five-Act structure, sketches and songs are derived from original cabaret but there too few of them amidst the lengthy descriptions of her grandfather’s life story. Well into the second hour of the show, for example, a long sequence explains the 1968 Prague Spring using a song comically promoting socialism as its frame while Sherwood reads facts of game show like cards that just consumes time.

And time is frequently wasted in a show that still feels far too baggy and often chaotic for its content. Running at 10-minutes shy of two hours, there is a lot of set-up for some of the sections, the mini-party “interval” which in the small front-on design of the Camden People’s Theatre creates a tight awkwardness as people try to move around, and many many minutes are lost while everyone in complete silence watches a single audience member listen to an important record with headphones on. The Company will surely find a way to tighten the piece and find a sharper focus, 20-30-minutes really needs be cut to create a slicker overall narrative.

Choosing not to replay one or several of Kalina’s shows in their entirety feels like a deliberate decision – something which the Bloomsbury Theatre did in 2015 presenting cabaret written in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Germany – and Sherwood clearly wants to make a name for her grandfather. Yet, this is still a young show, finding its feet and open to press on its very first night so Sherwood, along with performer-musicians Thom Andrewes, Will Gardner and Maria Rekhakova (who for unclear reasons pretends for a while to be a member of the audience), will hone and shape Rendezvous in Bratislava as it continues its UK tour. And it may help Sherwood find a distinct voice of her own voice as well, cabaret seems to run in the family.

Runs Until: 26 January 2020 

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