15th October, 2019
“What good is sitting alone in your room?”
Liza Minnelli on stage in a slinky black playsuit, bowler hat and stockings, sporting a staccato bohemian hairdo, slouched posture and splayed limbs. It’s an image synonymous with the music of Kander and Ebb, the sensual minimalism of Fosse and the genre of musical performance itself. It’s no wonder then that all subsequent productions of Cabaret live in the shadow of the iconic 1972 film. On tour once again, Rufus Norris’ 2006 production, which itself has had several renderings, attempts to blend the seediness of the film and hyper-sexuality of the following Mendes/Marshall productions in the 90’s with the original Brechtian Epic format. While this makes for some dynamic individual moments, for me the show doesn’t quite hang together as a whole, nor does it fully accomplish the gut-punch impact that Norris and co. seem desperate to instil.
John Partridge’s excitable Emcee welcomes the audience into the underbelly of early 1930’s Berlin, alongside young American writer-cum-teacher Cliff (Charles Hagerty). The Kit Kat Klub presents a revue of satirical musical skits, striptease and broad humour, while backstage is a breeding ground for social debauchery and political unrest amid the rise to power of the Nazi party. After striking up a relationship with Cliff, down-and-out headline act, Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth), a naïve yet ruthless doll, does anything she can to survive in a changing world.
The premise of juxtaposing the socio-historical realism of Joe Masteroff’s book scenes (boarding house ennui, struggling debts, illicit trysts) with the ultra-staged synthesis of the Klub scenes is a theatre lover’s dream. We can indulge our empathetic senses in getting to know a host of characters that are flawed but likable, while also engaging our intellect via the Brechtian prism of dramatic irony and epic satire. Norris creates some memorable numbers which fulfil the Brechtian dogma – ‘If You Could See Her’ hits the right notes of uncomfortable self-consciousness, and ‘Two Ladies’ and ‘The Money Song’ are well staged so to arouse equal levels of kitsch burlesque titillation and ironic nausea induced by the intransigent doctrines at play.
Yet, the more traditional musical theatre style songs that feature in the ‘real’ (aka. Non-Kit Kat Klub) world muddy the waters and blunt the edges of a piece that has the potential to be razor-sharp. Forgettable ballads, such as the unnecessary and oddly twee duet between Sally and Cliff, ‘Perfectly Marvellous’, do little to progress the story or offer thematic insight. And although the subplot featuring landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and her relationship with a Jewish Shopkeeper is a sweet antidote to the cynicism displayed elsewhere, it feels like an offcut from an entirely different play. The adjacent worlds occupied on stage refuse to cohere, and where the contrasts should enhance one another’s meaning they merely detract from the hard-hitting topics so intelligently addressed in numbers such as the titular ‘Cabaret’. It is plain to see why Fosse insisted on cutting so much for the film.
I also found some of the direction a little overstated. Cabaret will never be a show lauded for its subtlety, but, for instance, the puppet master staging of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ seems a lazy consequence of moralising hindsight with its knowing mockery and obvious punchline. In comparison with Fosse’s unforgettable version of the number that is bone-chilling in its earnestness, Norris’ interpretation seems somewhat of a cheap shot. Furthermore, while my partner thought the ending was effective -
The Emcee, alongside his troupe of cabaret performers, strips fully naked and the curtain comes down on the ensemble being prepared for execution in a Nazi Concentration Camp.
*end of spoiler*
- I was unsure about the way it humanised the Emcee, removing some of the emblematic gloss from a nefariously ambivalent character. It also smacks of a director that lacks confidence in his audience. Give us a little credit, we are able to use our imaginative faculties without needing the dots joined up for us.
Of the performances, John Partridge is quite visibly having a blast, and while I found his Emcee a little too aggressive at times, he avoids the potential trappings of being a simple Joel Grey or Alan Cumming impersonation. Kara Lily Hayworth lacks some of the charm that Minnelli brought to Sally, but she can belt out the songs with great musicality. Hagerty is a likeable Cliff, and Anita Harris and James Paterson shine as doomed couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz bringing an element of sympathetic fragility to proceedings. It’s just a shame that their subplot seems so removed from the rest of the show.
I’m glad to have finally seen Cabaret on stage, but for me Norris’ production is less than the sum of its parts. Funnily enough, as a revue its successful – it entertains, and individual numbers make you think and hit pertinent themes of morality – but strung together as a dramatic narrative it simply failed to click with me, which is a shame as I adore the film. Bold, but not quite gutsy enough to be truly shocking. Theatrical, but too dramatically imbalanced to be Epic. The songs, however, remain a treat.
Cabaret plays at Curve, Leicester until 19th October 2019.
For further tour details please visit: https://www.kenwright.com/portfolio/cabaret/
|The cast of Cabaret.|
Credit: The Other Richard