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CABARET AT THE KIT KAT CLUB (FORMERLY THE PLAYHOUSE)
Cabaret is one of the enduring masterpieces of the modern Broadway era; premiered in 1966, four years ahead of the revolution that director Hal Prince and composer Stephen Sondheim brought to the New York musical stage in the next decade — with their consecutive hits Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd — it was Prince who prefigured that work when he directed the premiere of Cabaret, a show that remains defiantly and definitively bold, bedazzling and still incredibly daring 55 years later.
Prince — and his writers, composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, and book writer Joe Masteroff — created a show that’s at once insinuating, disturbing and ravishing in its darkly and dangerously simmering portrait of a decadent Berlin in the second half of the 1930s, as Germany slips into the parallel allure and grip of fascism.
Set in the fictional Kit Kat Club, it offers scenes from the backstage and offstage life of its star performer Sally Bowles, with presentational numbers from the show she (and others, led by the iconic and ambiguous character of the Emcee) put on there.
The master stroke of Rebecca Frecknall’s production is, for the first time, to make this a fully immersive staging from the moment you enter an entirely reconfigured Playhouse Theatre — a shape-shifting venue that has previously seen makeovers for transfers of The Jungle and Fiddler on the Roof (from the Young Vic and Menier, respectively) that have radically altered the theatre before.
But this is of a different magnitude. The foyer space is already hosting a dance revue of sorts when the audience arrives — and actors and musicians are stalking the circular disc of a stage inside the auditorium, too (stunningly designed by Tom Scutt).
And then Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee offers his extraordinary Willkomen to the audience — and we already know that theatrical magic is happening before our eyes. It’s not just that he’s virtually unrecognisable — or that he sings it so well. It’s that you hear this familiar invitation as a new kind of provocation; you are being lured and conscripted into another world.
There’s a lot of tension between the eroticism on offer here (with lots of flesh on offer from the dancers — male, female and non-binary) and the struggle of lives beyond this club including a boarding house on the Nomendorff Platz, where an American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, is boarding; another resident Fraulein Kost is, unsuccessfully, hiding her business as a prostitute from her landlady Fraulein Schneider; and Schneider, a long-time spinster, is in a budding romance with a local fruit seller, who happens to be Jewish.
Frecknall’s phenomenal cast is richly coloured by actors Omari Douglas, Anna-Jane Casey, Liza Sadovy (pictured above left to right) and Elliot Levey (pictured below) in each of these roles respectively that makes them as richly drawn and fully realised as the two leads. You believe every heartbreaking beat of each of their desperate instincts for survival — and their desires for intimacy that they must variously reject or be rejected for.
I pretty much cried through the entirety of the second act, partly through the pain of recognition; my mother, born of a Jewish mother in Nazi-occupied Poland but who survived the war thanks to her mother’s survival instincts of marrying a Catholic, could have been in this predicament; and never lost a feeling of chronic insecurity for the rest of her life.
Driving these deeply poignant and powerful stories are some of the most alternately delicate and ravishing numbers Kander and Ebb ever wrote. For example, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ is a Nazi war anthem, but has a gorgeously melodic tune that turns it into the darkest of uncomfortable pleasures.
And the title song — which has long become a showstopper — is now a heartstopper, too, with Frecknall and her star Jessie Buckley (pictured above, with Omari Douglas) reimagining it as a physical manifestation of a nervous breakdown. (It’s a pity they many in the audience give it a Pavlovian response that’s as if it just witnessed Liza Minnelli belting it out, not the contained cry of utter desperation that Buckley performs it as)
This is a truly remarkable work of art, and this new production seduces afresh.
It’s a pity then, to have to end on a sour but important practical note. The production has taken the welcome initiative to require its audience to take lateral flow tests before they come to the theatre, proof of which is checked on arrival.
But in the theatre itself there is no enforcement of what is now compulsory mask wearing; on the very day that this became a legal requirement last Friday, it was baffling that this was being flouted so openly. Part of the problem is that some patrons are served food, and all are invited to buy drinks; which becomes an excuse for audiences not to comply, whether or not they’re actually drinking or eating.
It seems to me that this element of the production needs to be stopped, at least as long as Covid represents the renewed threat it currently does; or the production itself should be suspended, an obviously dire outcome I wouldn’t want to call for, given how deeply I adored it.
PANTOLAND (BUT NOT POUNDLAND) AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM
Last December, the third lockdown was imposed on a Tuesday night in mid-December; Pantoland, Michael Harrison’s Christmas attraction specially made to celebrate the Palladium’s long association with pantomime, was due to open officially the next night.
So critics never got to review it; I actually had tickets for what turned out to be the last of its six public performances on the Tuesday evening (An invited audience had attended another gala Royal performance ahead of those previews, which Prince William attended with his wife and kids).
But as my husband and I had planned a trip to the Lake District for the next day, we decided to cancel the panto, with some reluctance, to make sure we left London before it was locked down to tier 3 restrictions, and not breach the rules on travelling from a tier 3 to a tier 2 destination. We duly arrived in the Lakes around 9pm on the Tuesday evening.
It didn’t stop someone on social media who, seeing that I had tweeted about being in the area, reported me to the police for a possible breach of the lockdown rules, and we were duly paid a visit by two officers from the local constabulary on a subsequent night of our stay. Of course, they were able to ascertain from the hotel that we’d arrived earlier, so we were not in breach of the rules at all. Funny, of course, now that the police officers stationed all over Downing Street didn’t notice the multiple parties taking place right under their very noses in the subsequent days.
It did mean, however, that I therefore missed the panto party taking place at the Palladium, which last year saw Beverley Knight briefly joining the now-resident company of leads Julian Clary, panto dame Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and of course comedy stooge Nigel Havers.
With Knight now headlining another Michael Harrison project The Drifters Girl in the West End, it is instead pop legend Donny Osmond, who made his own UK stage debut on this very stage nearly 50 years ago in a Royal variety show with his brothers, who — at the age of 64 — now occupies the star spot. (Next year he will feature again — but played by another actor — in the new bio-musical The Osmonds, about him and his siblings, that will launch a UK tour at Leicester’s Curve from Febuary 3)
I was delighted to finally be able to catch this warm-hearted show, more a variety revue than a fully-fledged panto, which replays some highlights from past years, like Gary Wilmott’s brilliant musical recitation of names of every tube station in London (now newly augmented by those of the Northern line extension to Battersea Power station, and the stops on Crossrail’s yet-to-open Elizabeth line)
And of course there’s Julian Clary — in a succession of more and more outrageously camp frocks, but which are tame compared to some of the shameless sexual innuendos he brings to virtually every sentence — and with no concessions to political correctness, either, as when he suggests that a lesbian technician in the wings can repair a lighting malfunction.
This is so old school that I fully expect some of the new woke brigade to take offence.
That delicious anticipation from the joyless only added to my pleasure, though. Just as the joyless snitch who reported me erroneously to the police a year ago provided me with one of my all-time favourite holiday snaps in the Lake District….
Talking of holidays — this newsletter comes to you this week from the US, where I arrived last night — getting out just ahead of another possible lockdown that we on Plague Island could very well be headed into.
I flew into Boston, and today I’ll be travelling up to Provincetown, where my husband and I have gone every summer since we met, but not for the last two thanks to Covid. But after an enforced break of two and a half years, we decided to pay our first-ever winter visit, and see what it like out-of-season.
While we are in PTown, this means we’ll miss a traveller in the opposite direction — the amazing Dina Martina, who usually does a summer-long nightly residency at the Crown and Anchor, that sells out for every show.
This larger-than-life drag creature — with their bizarre pronunciations and eccentric world views, delivered at speed as a kind of stream of (un)conscious, rambling thought — is a true original. I’m sorry I’ll be missing them during their short residency at Soho Theatre, starting tomorrow (December 14) for a run to December 30. But catch it if you can!
This newsletter will continue to be filed from PTown for the rest of this week, but will then be suspended until my return from the US on January 3; next week I’ll be moving onto New York briefly, ahead of joining a Christmas cruise to the Dominican Republic (December 24-29), then returning to New York for a few nights that include New Year’s Eve, before returning to London!
I’ll use some of those nights to catch up on some Broadway shows I missed when I was there last month — as well as a preview, I hope, of the new Michael Jackson bio-musical MJ that has begun performances in the meanwhile.
However, after seeing the prices for the new production of The Music Man — over $1,400 for a pair of tickets for a preview I looked at, through the show’s official ticket provider — I’ll be giving it a wide berth; I saw the show’s last New York revival with Craig Bierko and the late, great Rebecca Luker in 2000, and I just don’t need to see it again that badly, even though I’m sure Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster will be an equal delight.
SEE YOU TOMORROW
See you in your inbox tomorrow. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage (though not as often on weekends)