Cabaret – Playhouse Theatre

Cabaret - Playhouse Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

We’ve all spent far too long sitting alone in our rooms so the cabaret is exactly where we need to be. What emerged as a delicious theatre rumour a few months ago has not only become a real production but a dream come true experience. Theatre closure was long and ruinous for many but Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret is our long-awaited reward. It may still be some time until press night but you may as well hand this company a truck load of Oliviers right not because this production is why theatre matters so much, staged at the newly refurbished Playhouse Theatre which welcomes audiences for the first time since March 2020 – you won’t want to go home.

The venue has undergone a remarkable transformation, taking a theatre with some of the poorest sight-lines, particularly from its steeply raked upper circle, to create a central in-the-round space that is far more visible, building on the original stalls to place cabaret tables around a small, circular stage. The effect is quite something and incredibly atmospheric, with the carpentry and creative team give it a Music Hall style design that feels historic, lived-in and cosily intimate.

There is no sawdust and paint aroma as you might expect and, with strategic use of drapes, a new box space has been added on either side of the original dress circle to house the musicians. This former proscenium-arch theatre has been completely opened-up which gives Frecknall the freedom to use the entire playing space for performance, underscoring the central thesis that characters exist beyond their Kit Kat Club persona, intermingling with and reflecting the very real people who have come to see them.

The experience begins from the moment you enter the theatre with the creation of a labyrinthine tour through the corridors normally out of bounds to the public but now dressed as basement bars with crinkly gold leaf and low lighting. Before finding your seat, catch a performance from members of the Kit Kat Club in a warm-up act danced on the foyer bar. Pause, marvel and enjoy as suggestively dressed artists create the mood, priming the audience for the main event.

It is a clever approach to immediate immersion that continues as you take your seat with music and dance performances carried through to all levels of the theatre – the fact that everyone looks a little worn, generating a middling enthusiasm is all part of the tone that Frecknall is creating, one that adds a seedy melancholy in which the show is so carefully poised. These are not so much creatures of pleasure determined to fulfil the fantasies of club members, but exhausted dancers struggling to summon the enthusiasm for yet more careless clients, the Underbelly artists perfectly capturing the mood of disdain.

There was always something about this production from the moment of its announcement to the atmospheric visual imagery adorning the posters. In offering a seedy glamour, this Cabaret was always going to be a bit special. And so it proves. We have come to expect a particular style from Frecknall’s work, a way of investigating text and character that finds the crucial emotional beats beneath the surface and gives her productions an almost musical rhythm where pace, tone and style rise and fall like dance or orchestration.

Applying her techniques to an actual musical brings a greater resonance to Cabaret exploring the ways in which songs and story create character insight and narrative development while re-examining the emotional shading in those elements to create a darker and less celebratory interpretation of a world ending and a brief sanctuary that can no longer withstand the political context assailing its walls.

Frecknall’s interpretation looks to works like Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Somerset Maughan’s Of Human Bondage in its exploration of the waring effect of poverty for both men and women in this era as the characters shuffle from club to boarding house. One particularly astute observation is how rapidly the sheen of glamour wears off, leaving behind a feeling of oppression that grows weightier as the story plays out, suggesting not only the growing political dangers around the characters as society begins to shift, but also the grinding effect of poverty from which individuals struggle to pick themselves up time after time.

In some of the productions more powerful moments, Frecknall elucidates an understanding of the fruitlessness of the characters’ dreams of escape, the hope – as Sally herself suggests – that this time it will be different, but knowing all the while that it never will. In staging this, there are tones of Bob, Jenny and Ella from Hamilton’s novel, creations whose hopes of distraction and escape are inflamed but eventually extinguished, leaving them, at best, the same, but often worse off then before, emotionally if not financially. What Frecknall does so well is to situate the lives of her characters in this broader context, and while we may only encounter them in Kander and Ebb’s songs and the few dramatic scenes between them, these people seem to exist beyond the confines of this night at the Kit Kat Club and even this musical.

In a show filled with some of the most beloved musical theatre numbers and an attachment to how these should be staged using Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, Frecknall’s triumph is to set aside the performance history of Cabaret – much as Jamie Lloyd did with Evita – to reconsider the integration of music and dramatic scenes as a continuous emotional journey with both serving a clear and consistent vision for the show. Frecknall has made that balance especially compelling, giving equivalent emphasis to character interaction and development while repointing the usually exuberant and ‘big’ approach to staging the song and dance numbers, using them to reflect the changing mood of the club and the advancing political tide that will consume them all in the months and years to come.

The skill that choreographer Julia Cheng and set and costume designer Tom Scutt bring to the staging is to make that shift feel entirely organic, so that not only do we realise that we have been missing a trick all these years by not seeing the possibilities of this small, contained, narrative interpretation, but making it so beautiful and affecting, a grand inevitable tragedy, that operates simultaneously on a large and small scale.

As with Summer and Smoke, it is the emotional beats that Frecknall makes so devastatingly effective, injecting a kind of thrumming life blood into each character that amplifies their wants and needs beyond their role as a performer or neighbour. This is particularly notable in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz whose shy flirtation in a reasonably bawdy household is at the heart of the show, tracking their late-blooming love and its consequences with a melting tenderness that will warm and eventually break your heart as circumstances conspire against them.

How this is reflected in Cabaret’s few character numbers (i.e. those not doubling as performances at the Kit Kat Club) is very skilful, capturing all the hope, loneliness and fear of the lovers in a consistent journey from spoken interaction to musical exposure of their soul, taking the audience with them entirely as both kinds of theatrical expression reflect and enhance each other, creating a completeness that is very moving.

And this production’s biggest coup is to do exactly the same thing with the Kit Kat Club songs, repositioning them as reflections of inner turmoil and a changing relationship with the nature of performance as their ‘real life’ offers and sometimes shuts-off avenues for development and personal changes that shape how songs are then performed. The greatest example of this is Sally’s version of the title number close to the end of Act Two, the once gloriously upbeat and defiant anthem in which the singer gives her all in the place she feels most at home, here becomes a sarcastic song of broken defeat in which Sally rails against the disappointments of her life, culminating in this cry of pain.

Performed by Jessie Buckley, it is an agonising, seductive and show-stopping moment that entirely captures the end of a trajectory for Sally that has taken her through confidence and self-satisfaction, hopes of a ‘normal’ life to a sad and painful disillusion that casts her lower than she was ever high. And this is not a singular moment but something Frecknall weaves throughout the show, allowing every song to bring that kind of insight and leaving the audience holding their breath in anticipation as every character’s depth and ache is felt through these songs from the saucy Don’t Tell Mama where Sally is on form but still a product of her circumstances, to the Emcee’s pointed interpretation of Money that so clearly emphasises the underlying melancholy of working class life with the long spectre of the First World War shaping Germany’s existence and a vision of the deaths to come, to the bitter chill of Tomorrow Belongs to Me as exuberant individuality is slowly sacrificed to a besuited uniformity – something which creeps across the show, chasing away the light as fascism descends.

This reinterpretation casts a more incisive perspective on Sally’s character, breaking away somewhat from Liza Minnelli’s more buoyant approach, taking life’s knocks on the chin, and in Buckley’s performance charting the slow erosion of Sally as each new encounter and every song chips more and more from her ability to endure. Yet Buckley still makes Sally charming, grubbily alluring in her musical performances and pragmatic, a different kind of woman, able to withstand any fresh circumstances and turn them successfully to her advantage.

Yet beneath the surface, Buckley carries a deep well of soulful agony, a desire for more that makes the elusive Sally a desperate dreamer both craving a new, more certain life with the promise of something to love, but so afraid of the reality that she becomes a self-destructive force. It is a beautiful performance, fragile and strong at the same time, and filled with such pathos for Sally and the endless cycles of her life that burrow deep into your consciousness and emotional responses.

Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee does something similar, playing against type in a role that demands a showmanship and transformational physicality that shapes and directs the narrative. It couldn’t be further from his work for film and big franchise, and like Buckley, this may be the greatest performance of Redmayne’s career, presenting that visually dazzling outward face of the club while internalising all of Frecknall’s themes about the toll of long-term poverty and public performance in a dangerous unstable political climate.

Redmayne’s Emcee is a deliberate oddity, with a hunched-over flexibility that allows him to stalk the stage, creating not just an androgynous feel but also the impression of a creative quite distinct from everyone around him. Always dressed in careful but elaborate style including clowns, sailor suits, skeletal soldiers and slick businessmen – and particular kudos to Scutt for his impeccable contribution to character creation – Redmayne’s capacity for metamorphosis is extraordinary while visually and vocally guiding the audience through the sensitively changing tones of this story.

There is superb support from Omari Douglas as the American writer wanting to be corrupted, Stewart Clarke as the personable Nazi supporter whose influence affects the sweet affair between Elliot Levy’s Herr Schultz and Liza Sadovy’s Fraulein Schneider, while the very small company of Kit Kat Club dancers Theo Maddix, Daniel Perry, Andre Refig, Christopher Tenda, Bethany Terry, Lillie-Pearl Wildman and Sophie Maria Wojna bring each number to life, roaming around the revolving and multi-level stage with a slinky but stained glamour.

Frecknall’s Cabaret is truly astounding, a show that will take your breath away from the second it begins and leave you thinking about it for weeks afterwards. The veil of interwar social melancholy is wonderfully pitched, leaving you wondering what Frecknall might make of After the Dance as a future project. The major tragedy here is that so few people will get to see it with prohibitively expensive ticket prices. Cabaret should be seen, it is a true advert for the beguiling, life changing power of theatre that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a week’s salary for. It is profoundly moving and entirely consuming, it repositions a show we know too well and finds all kinds of new depths, meanings and resonances so our relationship to it will never be quite the same again. As well as accessible tickets deals, let’s make this work of art available affordably online and in cinemas, book the NT Live cameras now because everyone should have the chance to be transfigured by it.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May 2022 although cast changes are likely from February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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