Wednesday, 16 October 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Cabaret - The Curve, Leicester.

‘I thought musicals were meant to be uplifting!’muttered one disgruntled theatregoer as she headed for the exit at the end. Maybe she should have done some basic research beforehand: several of Cabaret’s songs have achieved a life independent of their source but hearing them in isolation gives no hint of the darkness at the heart of Kander and Ebb’s game-changing musical theatre piece, which did its bit to transform the genre when it premiered on Broadway in 1966.

Only a soundtrack album survives from that original production, but I doubt whether it could touch this revival by Rufus Norris for sheer bleakness as well as sheer permissiveness. Although the Kit-Kat Club dancers are in the now de rigeur bondage/fetish gear, there is also a brief and unexpected moment of (male) full frontal nudity; in addition, the central character of Clifford Bradshaw is unambiguously bisexual (not just bi-curious as in the film or ‘straight’ as in the original Broadway version). These emphases and the dark tones used in Katrina Lindsay’s set as lit by Tim Oliver convey an atmosphere of approaching dread that permeates even the lighter numbers: even if you didn’t know the story, you’d have a sense from the beginning that things weren’t going to end well.

Perhaps more variety of tone would have made for a stronger production overall: as a programme note reminds us, the Berlin of the late Weimar Republic was a place of frantic, often joyous abandon - either despite, or because rampant inflation had destroyed ordinary peoples’ material wealth, forcing them to live for the moment. In Norris’ version, which has been widely (and justifiably) acclaimed, the exuberance was qualified, as if each dancer feared their next step might be their last.

Presiding over the action as both chorus figure and commentator is John Partridge’s splendid Master of Ceremonies, a tall, flamboyant figure with an elastic body and the ability (vital in this role) to build rapid rapport with the audience. Happily, this was not a grandstanding performance and Partridge unselfishly became part of the ensemble during his big numbers (notably, Three Ladies which built splendid comic riffs on the idea of the threesome and If You Could See Her, here played as a shadow ballet with the MC’s gorilla dancing partner behind a screen). His German pronunciation was faultless, too.

Elsewhere among the principals, Charles Hagerty made more of Cliff than some of his predecessors: this is a role with only one featured solo number (‘Why Should I Wake Up?’), so those familiar only with the score might not have twigged that Cliff’s is actually the leading role, the character around whom all the other characters pivot. And as his kind-hearted and endlessly resilient landlady Fraulein Schneider, industry veteran Anita Harris was warmly sympathetic and puts across her keynote numbers (the philosophical ‘So, What?’and the reflective ‘What Would You Do?’) with eloquent wit and sadness. She was well-partnered by opera singer James Paterson as her grocer admirer Herr Schultz who deployed his expressive baritone voice in their duets (‘The Pineapple Song’ and ‘Married’). In the important but largely number-less roles of Ernst Ludwig and Frauline Kost, Nick Tizzard and Basienka Blake provided characterful support.
Kara Lily Hayworth was a somewhat static Sally Bowles, convincingly ‘debby’ but lacking in the exuberance and chutzpah that has carried the character this far in showbusiness (since Liza Minnelli put her trademark on the role, it’s usually forgotten that Sally is meant to be a not very good cabaret artist, one who is clearly never going to make it).

Javier Frutos’ choreography was imaginative and gives rise to some striking and amusing stage pictures: but the final tableau, when the cabaret dancers are suddenly transformed into the inmates of a concentration camp is one of the most chilling you will ever see on stage. The avoidance of swastikas (too easy, too obvious) was also to be commended.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 15/10/19

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