When you enter the Playhouse Theatre via the entrance that normally serves as the stage door, you are confronted at one point with a dark mirror in the shape of the Kit Kat club eye logo. It is an apposite metaphor for theatre – when we watch a play, we see ourselves.
When Cabaret At The Kit Kat Club (to give it its full title) opened last year, people looked at its themes of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and nationalism, and saw parallels to Brexit. Now, as Russia descends into full totalitarianism under a fascist leader, the kaleidoscope is shaken and we see a much darker set of parallels. Briefly escaping the horrors of world events by going to the Kit Kat Club to watch a musical about people escaping the horrors of world events by going to the Kit Kat Club is art reflecting life reflecting art.
The genesis of Cabaret is perhaps the most convoluted of any musical.
The genesis of Cabaret is perhaps the most convoluted of any musical. A semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, by the English author Christopher Isherwood, published in 1939, is included in his 1945 collection, The Berlin Stories. This is adapted into the 1951 play, I Am A Camera, which is itself adapted into the 1966 musical Cabaret, which then gets adapted into the famous 1972 film, Cabaret, whereupon the new songs written for the movie show up in later stage adaptations.
The story takes place towards the final years of the Weimar Republic (a term first coined by Adolf Hitler, surprisingly), where an impoverished American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, arrives in Berlin, hoping for inspiration for a novel, and finds it in the people he meets, most notably the young, English chanteuse, Sally Bowles, and the denizens of the Kit Kat Club, a distillation of the decadent clubs that were once found on the real-life Kurfürstendamm avenue.
Entering the building not through the main entrance but via backstage corridors took me back to real-life clubs I visited when I studied in Germany. We were offered a free water, beer or schnapps at the door, and could then wander through any of the three bars – Rot, Gold, Grün – in which dancers and musicians in the prologue company gyrated and played to give a louche, faded, neo-Brechtian atmosphere. This was probably the most crowded, interior environment we’d been in since the start of the pandemic, and while it did not feel unsafe, you could see why the production insists on a negative lateral flow test as a requirement of admission.
The entire interior design is a triumph, dramatically reconfiguring a conventional proscenium arch auditorium into an almost unrecognisable hybrid of in-the-round stage and Berlin nightclub. It’s perhaps the most remarkable transformation of a theatre I’ve ever seen. Despite being up in the ‘cheap’ seats, the view of the stage was so good that I’m not sure we would have swapped with the richer patrons in their wallet-shreddingly expensive seats in the restaurant below that served food and drinks with waiter service.
Cabaret is so untypical as to still make most modern musicals look unsophisticated in comparison. It starts not with an overture but a drum roll and cymbal crash. It places a bisexual character at the heart of the story. Every song is unsettling, melancholic or has a darker theme as its subtext. Above all, even though you may enjoy Cabaret, it is not a happy musical. Like a Greek tragedy, we the audience know the inevitability of what is coming – a totalitarian evil that will annihilate exactly the types of people we see on the stage.
The cast of this production is very good. A sensitive Omari Douglas walks the tightrope of Cliff being both a Candide-like innocent and the pragmatic counterweight to Sally.
Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are superb with their late-in-life, doomed romance that both mirrors and contrasts with the doomed romance of Sally and Cliff. Their rendition of It Couldn’t Please Me More, a gently erotic song about a pineapple, is one of the greatest comic performances I’ve ever seen.
Stewart Clarke did well with the somewhat thankless task of portraying the enigmatic German, Ernst Ludwig, and produced a slight gasp from the audience in the scene where he simply removes his overcoat to reveal his true identity.
The sexually ravenous Fräulein Kost was effortlessly played by Bethany Terry, who was second cover (!) for the absent Anna-Jane Casey, which really gives you an idea of what an astonishing job swings do.
The most interesting character in the musical is perhaps Emcee. At the start, when he sings Willkommen, he is both welcoming the audience within the musical and welcoming us, the audience watching the musical. As the narrative progresses, he inhabits an increasingly liminal position, becoming a chorus for events in the story, wider events outside of the story and, ultimately, events in the real world.
In this revival, Emcee is played by the big name in the production, Oscar winner and film star Eddie Redmayne. While he undoubtedly gives a good performance that encompasses acting, singing and physicality, he was, for me, overly mannered. In particular, his French and German accents were exaggerated, resulting in a lack of clarity in his diction, especially when he sang. While he is nevertheless good, riveting to watch, and is to be praised for attacking the role with total conviction, his is not quite the astonishing and unique creation that others seem to have seen.
Even though Cliff is our POV character, it’s really Sally Bowles who sits at the heart of the story. On our visit, the ever-excellent Jessie Buckley, herself becoming a major star, was replaced by her cover, Emily Benjamin, who turned in a dazzling and unforgettable performance. Confident to the point of effortlessness, highly original in her acting, and with one of the clearest and most powerful voices I’ve heard, she was pure joy to watch. She was great in everything but when she performed the title song, Cabaret, she was just astonishing, physically inhabiting the song with freshness and vigour, and belting it out at such a volume that the voice amplification occasionally failed to cope. I’d never heard of her up until this performance but I’ll certainly be looking out for her in future – she is incredible and surely a star of the future.
The quality of the music and singing deserves a separate mention, the former (music supervision and direction by Jennifer Whyte) nicely conjuring up atmosphere with that curiously Eastern European, non-German sound that, ironically, seems to capture Weimar Germany, while the singing of the cast is original, unexpected and direct – none of the vocal gymnastics you get in so many West End musicals.
Director Rebecca Frecknall deserves praise for creating a Cabaret that is distinct, original and which creates an intimate atmosphere that would have been impossible with a conventional proscenium. The entire production is undercut with menace, entirely right for a period where the Nazis were forming their own state within a state to further their thuggish ambitions. The non-naturalistic staging works very well, allowing imaginative scene changes where the revolve is put to good use and the stage itself often resembles a jack-in-the-box via the well-used trapdoor. The coup de théâtre of a glass window shattered by a brick is not merely visually striking but foreshadows the blackguardly pogrom of Kristallnacht that is yet to come.
Tom Scutt‘s design for the revamped theatre, the set and the costumes, is to be praised and aids the storytelling. The progression of Emcee’s costumes, becoming increasingly sinister to reflect the oncoming horror, speaks more effectively than mere exposition. I found the inconsistency between naturalistic and non-naturalistic costumes distracting at times – was a character dressed like that as a metaphor, or were they supposed to be dressed like that in the real world of the story? – but this was a minor, personal quibble. Finally, a round of applause for the carpentry team who physically built the brilliant stage and seating for the auditorium.
Julia Cheng provides the choreography, which effectively contributes to the telling of the story. While the ensemble have levels of talent that us mere mortals can only boggle at, the endlessly sexualised dances did get a little tedious, and, like some of Tom Scutt’s design, forgets that people went to these clubs to dress up and have a bit of glamour in their lives, not to experience endless, down-at-heel seediness. However, since that design aesthetic also serves as a metaphor of jaded hopes and weltschmerz, one supposes that’s the route the production committed to, which is fair enough.
The lighting by Isabella Byrd was very effective, enriching an otherwise bare stage and providing a harsh, visual edge to many of the songs.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the lives of a tiny proportion of Germans living in a handful of streets in Berlin did not represent the lived experience of most Germans at the time.
Cabaret is an entertainment, not a documentary, yet it has become an integral part of how the Weimar Republic is viewed popularly. Say ‘Weimar’ and it’s likely that most people will think of the words ‘decadence’ and ‘debauchery’, coupled with the neon signs of nightclubs with rich and poor patrons mixing at tables as they watch – well, cabarets. It is worth reminding ourselves that the lives of a tiny proportion of Germans living in a handful of streets in Berlin did not represent the lived experience of most Germans at the time. The lives of the vast majority of Germans comprised a tough, unglamorous, economic struggle in a country still recovering from the shattering blow of losing the First World War.
Further, Cabaret, with lyrics and book written by three Americans, based on an original novel written by a privately educated Englishman who went to Cambridge, is an outsider’s view of a country, which is perfectly valid but one must bear in mind that there are no first-hand German voices here at all – it is all mediated through privileged, non-Germans.
There is also an obvious irony to this production. If one of the moral messages of the musical is supposed to be that things go wrong when rich people indulge in pleasure and leave the poor people outside as the world starts to go wrong, then having tickets start at £30 and go all the way up to £250, while legitimate in itself, is somewhat in conflict with the message of your own production.
Nevertheless, as we come to the end of the initial run of Cabaret, with Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley due to leave in a fortnight, this is a production to be celebrated. This was arguably the first, blockbuster, West End production that we had to look forward to as we came out of the pandemic, and the bold decisions the creative team made have been repaid with a memorable piece of event theatre (Sir Derek Jacobi was in the audience at our matinée) that we have all been crying out for.
In the past few weeks, Cabaret’s themes have taken on a tragic relevance that could hardly have been imagined when it opened. For me, the most moving scene in the production is where the decent and kind-hearted Herr Schultz simply cannot believe that anything bad could happen to Jews like him because ‘after all, I am German.’ Now, a fascist leader has once more begun a war in Europe by invading an Eastern European country under the pretext of ethno-nationalism. Russian soldiers are committing mass murder against Ukrainians. And just like Herr Schultz, we watch the news, incredulous that such horrors could ever be possible in Europe again.