Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review : Colonel Moseley on "CABARET" from 27.10.2007

This old review is taken from my Reviewblog in 2007....

The Mem and I visited London again to celebrate my birthday and decided on an evening at the theatre. Several musicals were due to premier in the autumn including Spamalot and Wicked over from Broadway, but my decision was made for me when I saw a new production of Cabaret was previewing at the Lyric.

I worried whether to write about a preview, but decided it was fair since I’m not a professional reviewer and, in any event, my comments are very positive and should not deter paying customers.

Many musicals are only right for their time and do not age well. Cabaret manages to be much more. Like a good drama, it addresses important issues and can be dusted off and revived with a new interpretation which casts further light on our past.

Cabaret is capable of different forms of presentation; it must be set in Weimar Germany in 1931, but much else is left up for grabs. The world that is the Kit Kat Club, Berlin and its inhabitants is hugely variable; it accomodates the shabby, chic, straight, gay, vaudevillian, addict, aspirant, failure and any number of lost souls.

My chief image of Cabaret is the 1972 film with Liza Minnelli in black tights and bowler, astride a cane chair in the style of Bob Fosse. As well as this American jazz-hands classic, I recall Judi Dench in 1968, an English coquette with full orchestra in a tuneful show biz version.

There followed Sam Mendes' milestone pared-down Cabaret at the Donmar in 1993 with a mannered Alan Cummings and Jane Horrocks and a memorable Sara Kestelman.

Following his direction of Festen and Market Boy, I was intrigued as to what Rufus Norris would do with Cabaret and did not anticipate a spangly Shaftsbury Avenue extravaganza.

With high expectations, we took our seats for a 7.45 start on a warm evening. By eight the audience was growing a little restless and, sure enough, a stage manager appeared to apologise for the delay.

Ten minutes later Rufus Norris himself ambled on and explained something had been spilled on the stage and was having to be carefully cleaned off to ensure it was safe for the dancers. He shuffled off with a backwards glance and shrug reminiscent of Julie Andrews misbehaving at the end of the Charlot chorus line in Star - to a tumult of good-natured applause.

The Mem commented that she hoped Sir Cliff was not in the audience tonight; the delay was tolerable but a forty minute Wimbledon-rain-delay-medley of Summer Holiday and Livin' Doll would have been too much to bear.

The performance soon began and it was clear that the show had moved on. The set was dark and sparse, featuring grey and black angular wood and lettering that more than hinted of the concentration camp.

Six basic bed frames were moved and used imaginatively in different contexts, as were vertical ladders sliding across the stage. Sets were simple leaving one to create the railway station, Kit Kat Club and boarding house in Berlin in the imagination.

At the rear of the stage was the band, dressed as raffishly as the dancers: their brassy sound of the jazz age was brash and authentic, but not lush.

James Dreyfus as the Emcee began the show wearing clown’s white make-up on the lower half of his face, incorporating a topical reference to the evening’s delay. He sang well and held the show together with a lugubrious, malign presence.

His numbers, including Two Ladies and The Money Song, were crisp and clever with no comic opportunities missed.  Dreyfus maximised a heavy-handed, Germanic humour, mirroring what was developing on the streets. One could find no shred of warmth or decency in the Emcee, culminating in the spiteful anti-semitic ending of If you could See Her. This Emcee made the part his own and was no pale imitation either Joel Grey or Alan Cummings.

Like many in the audience, I was fascinated to see what Anna Maxwell Martin would bring to Sally Bowles. She turned out to be a blonde waif from the London suburbs, a charmingly frivolous hedonist interested only in the moment and ignoring the world.

Anna’s Sally with Marcel-waived hair and slinky clothes of the Weimar inhabited the loucher side of decadent. Her novice nun suspended from an inverted bed during Don’t Tell Mama was deliciously naughty.

After Wilcommen this was the first number featuring dancers choreographed by Javier de Frutos, the London-based Venezuelan, recently-appointed director of the Pheonix Dance Theatre.

Without a bowler or jazz hand in sight, de Frutos has put together an ensemble that embodies the dark eroticism, excess and hedonism of Weimar Berlin, full of sexual ambiguity and abandon. The look is a mixture of sado-masochism, fur, leather and skin; it is drug-fuelled and desolate. The feel is of the kind of spiritual void depicted more genteelly in Ackland’s Absolute Hell - although Trainspotting might be a closer fit. Whatever the influences, the dancing is raunchy, stylish and striking with groupings and glassy-eyed poses straight from the paintings of George Grosz.

Sex and drugs are more than hinted at in this Kit Kat Club. There is some light- hearted nudity with a capering sailor at Fraulein Schneider’s guesthouse and at the Kit Kat, none of it gratuitous. It might be argued that a divinely decadent Mein Herr is a paean in praise of cocaine, rather than a departing lover.

One of the revelations of this production is Sheila Hancock as Fraulein Schneider. I have always thought that performance of Sara Kestelman in the role at the Donmar could not be equalled, but here Sheila Hancock produces a multi-layered characterisation: she is sharp, funny, bitter, hopeful, vulnerable, pragmatic and ultimately resigned.

In addition to subtle and sensitive acting, she sings beautifully.  Her Fraulein Schneider is complimented by a wholly convincing Herr Schultz by Geoffrey Hutchings. Herr Schultz does not have the comedic scope given to Peter Sallis in the Harold Prince version with a novelty number such as Meeskite. This would have been off-message in the more oppressive atmosphere of this production, but Geoffrey Hutchings still succeeds in giving a memorable performance and he and Sheila Hancock combine perfectly.

Michael Hayden carries off the difficult central role of Clifford Bradshaw capably, but does not have the benefit of a beautiful showstopper like Why should I wake up given to Kevin Colson in the 1968 production.

Cliff’s bi-sexuality is reflected more graphically in this production than others and his somewhat implausible relationship with Sally is presented as convincingly as possible.

This brings us back to Sally. In the first half, Anna Maxwell Martin carries off the production numbers with aplomb. After Don’t tell Mama and Mein Herr, her duet with Cliff in Perfectly Marvellous lived up to its name.

Maybe my hopes for Maybe This Time were too high or too much based on previous interpretations, but it was the only song of the evening that I found did not quite exceed my expectations. It was well-sung but delivered in a controlled and almost contemplative, very English, way that was almost too reserved to go on to develop into the torch-singing belter that one might expect from Ms Minnelli - or her mother. Maybe this English Sally actually knew, deep down, that she wasn't going to win and wasn't going to make too much fuss about it.

For me, Sally had two truly magical moments in the second half. First, when she greeted Cliff after having the abortion and stood, arms clutched around herself, utterly lost and the epitome of vulnerability and desolation and secondly, her performance of Cabaret. This is a song to which I have never really related: rhyming “Elsie” with “Chelsea”, it was a little too vaudeville to be moving. Anna Maxwell Martin however overcame this and imbued the song with a mindless defiance that made sense in Sally’s own limited world. It was very special and made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

At the finale Cliff’s words echo about a cabaret in a city called Berlin and dancing with Sally Bowles… “and we were both fast asleep”. The refrains of the principal characters resonate ironically as they cross the stage. Then the Emcee and dancers undress and retire in a line facing the back of the stage. They form a grim tableau, pale and shadowy, predicting the inmates of the camps so soon to be herded naked and dehumanised into gas chambers.

That chilling moment embodies the message of Cabaret and explains why it is more than just another musical: we should not ignore or waive responsibility for what is going on in the world and, if we do, a terrible price may be paid - from Dachau to Darfur. So I recommend Cabaret; it’s pretty well all that a musical can hope to be.

"Cabaret" at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1



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