Gate Theatre, London – until 9 June 2018
It occurred to me, as the lights came up at the end of Effigies of Wickedness, that I rarely take a moment to breathe at the end of a show – it’s usually straight to my feet, pick the bag up off the floor and head as quickly as I can to the exit and, then, home. But such was the impact of this production, its emotional punch, that I had to remain sitting in my chair for a minute to, sort of, take it all in. To just compose myself. To bring myself back together again.
And what an achievement Effigies of Wickedness is. I adored it. It lifted me, and it broke me. It’s a godsend, a wondrous co-production between the Gate and the English National Opera that showcases a programme of songs that were banned by the Nazis, whether because the writers and musicians were Jewish, or black. Or simply because they celebrated a life – and a world – far removed from the fascist ideal.
With the show’s cabaret format and presentation, its intoxicating blend of burlesque and theatre, it is as if the decadence and rebellion of the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret has been brought to life. Le Gateau Chocolat and Lucy McCormick shimmer like stars on the cabaret stage that dominates the auditorium, mixing charisma and acerbic with disarming ease. But they also give everything in their delivery of both comedic and heartbreakingly tender songs.
In this, they are aided by two fine performances from mezzo-soprano, Katie Bray and baritone, Peter Brathwaite. And for all the pizazz and bawdy cabaret styling (shout out to Ellan Parry for a cracking design), it’s the beauty and brilliance of these tracks that gives this show its heart.
Under the guidance of director Ellen McDougall, this cast – along with the live band – revisit songs that have been almost lost since they were performed in the Weimar years. Huge credit must go to Seiriol Davies who translated many of the songs performed. Petroleum Song is a highlight – snapping at the heels of the greed of oil companies – and Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal) is rightfully unforgiving and angry.
But there is a special place in my heart for Le Gateau Chocolat’s tender performance of Tonight or Never. He was sitting right in front of me as he performed this ballad of a flight to freedom, occasionally reaching out and tenderly touching my knee, and I very nearly burst into tears.
(Note: that’s also a bit of warning to those of you who aren’t keen on the immersive aspects of cabaret! I got into Press Night late-ish and could only find a seat in the front row. As a result, I ended up being thrust a gold-painted tree branch to wave, compelled to put on Lucy’s red shoes and even told – by Lucy, obvs – to get up and say something to keep the show going whilst she worked her transition from one song to the next! Won’t be doing that again!! But, hey, cabaret and burlesque will always have a very special place in my heart and to be so close to such terrific performance as these was an honour and a privilege.)
The show is only eighty minutes long, but I could have stayed all night. What I would give for this show to have a longer life. For it to be transported to a larger stage, for it to be embraced by the mainstream. But perhaps it remains more ‘truthful’ if it retains its base in the margins. Because, of course, much of the sadness it suggests isn’t just on the lives and careers destroyed by the Nazis, but because that sense of intolerance, discrimination and even fascism itself, seems to be on the rise once more on the streets outside.