music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff
at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 2nd June 2011
The world is a miserable place. Most of us with an ounce of wisdom can agree on that. But the creators of so many musicals seem to dodge away from difficult subjects, preferring to take the easy way out by showing a happy-clappy version of the world in which everyone lives happily ever after. Callum Runciman and Lilith Brewer’s production of Cabaret could not be further from this trend, portraying a gloriously pessimistic view of humanity during its darkest hour which at once provokes and delights.
We are in – unsurprisingly – a cabaret club in 1930s Berlin, and the American writer Clifford Bradshaw turns up hoping to find inspiration for a new novel. He meets and falls in love with the British Sally Bowles, and they live together in a boarding house presided over Fraulein Schneider, who is in turn in love with the Jewish Herr Schultz. As the various couples face troubles of their own, the impending Nazi takeover becomes more obvious. The whole enterprise is overseen by the omnipresent Emcee, here shown to be just as much a creator as a commentator on the events of the story.
The most striking aspect of this production is its gorgeous aesthetic. The film-noir inspired design is juxtaposed with the red curtain and yellow lights, and forces the Nazi Swastikas to stand out. The colour of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’ relationship is emphasised, they being the only ones to dress in colour.
This production is both sexy and sensitive. Musical numbers such as ‘Two Ladies’ are simply hilarious, and Shultz’ optimistic faith in humanity is one of the few redeeming features of this society. The bold, brash choices made at the closing of the first and second acts send shivers down the spine. We are sat in Cabaret-style set-up, forcing us to consider what we take as truth and what is illusion.
Each and every performer has utter conviction in their roles; even the chorus of Kit Kat boys and girls are utilised well. Stewart Clarke’s portrayal of the right-wing Ernst Ludwig is just enough of a caricature to remain funny, but still has enough humanity for us to follow his path. Edward Davis and Claire Furner as Schultz and Schneider both give perfectly nuanced performances, and as the relatively bland Bradshaw, Alastair Hill injects some genuine emotion. Tom Syms as the androgynous Emcee is nothing but class; at one point he is a droll narrator, and when in drag looks like a cross between Marilyns Manson and Monroe. The show is pretty much stolen, however, by Charlotte Cowley’s portrayal of Sally Bowles, with stiff upper lip and conserved emotions. When she sings the title number ‘Cabaret’, she proves herself to be an upcoming star of the stage.
This production of Cabaret is one of the best musicals I have ever seen. The theatricality of the sexual Kit Kat Club is juxtaposed carefully with the raw emotion in the more private scenes. With wonderfully original choreography by Katie Wignall and blinding lighting by Sam Daughty, the musical numbers don’t detract from but add to the action, and Kate Meadows’ musical direction adds another layer of emotion to the production. Cabaret makes some bold moves, and Runciman and Brewer’s direction draws out some of the key themes in the narrative. The fact we are sat mere metres away from the action adds to the drama, and for the two and a half hours we spend in the space, this is a far better alternative to sitting alone in our room.