Talk about a sensory overload! Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is one of the most ambitious theatrical projects I’ve ever encountered, aiming to achieve so much and very nearly nailing it all. At first, we weren’t going to go. I knew that if I saw it, but wasn’t seated at one of the exclusive front row tables costing £Blimey O’Riley, I’d feel as though I was missing out on the full experience. And two lots of £Blimey O’Rileys is an unjustifiably awful lot of coin. However, a friend went and sat in those very same seats and was overwhelmed by it, and told us we had to go. So, grabbing those mammoth prices by the throat, we went as my birthday treat. Oh, thanks. Yes, 21 again, thank you for asking.
Let’s go back to basics. If anyone ever dares tell you that musical theatre is mere froth and cannot say anything deep and meaningful, point them in the direction of Cabaret and tell them to shut it. The product of a distillation from Christopher Isherwood’s original 1939 book Goodbye to Berlin, through its adaptation by John van Druten into the play I am a Camera, and finally to Kander and Ebb’s 1966 stage musical, it’s also fifty years (gasp!) since the iconic film version came out. American Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to gain inspiration to write. He’s quickly beguiled by Sally Bowles, singer at the Kit Kat Club, and their unorthodox relationship plays out against the rise of Nazism; the songs and routines performed at the club reflect the growing tensions in society. Landlady Fräulein Schneider is courted by widower fruitmonger Herr Schultz; he is Jewish, but optimistic. The audience has the dubious investment of dramatic irony, knowing the fate that will befall the characters within the next ten years although the characters themselves don’t. It still has the power to shock, to horrify, and to make you look away; it’s also still supremely entertaining, delightfully funny, and proves itself remarkably resilient to new presentations and interpretations.
The production has been veiled in secrecy, in, I presume, an attempt to maintain the mystique of the Kit Kat Club. Until the last couple of weeks, there have been no photographs of any sort – not even promotionally pasted outside the theatre. There is now a video trailer online giving you some idea of what to expect, but it doesn’t reveal much. What happens in the Kit Kat Club stays in the Kit Kat Club; to the extent that they insist you put a sticker over the camera lens on your phone on the way in. I must say, it made me feel as though I was being treated as less than an adult. I wouldn’t have taken any photos anyway I gently complained as I complied. You’re one of the few, replied the attendant. I am a Camera, but we’re definitely not.
This show tries to do two things: a) present a spectacular, bar-raising production of one of the greatest musicals of all time and b) frame it within an experience that includes food and drink, backstage pre-entertainment, and a transformation of the Playhouse into a genuine Kit Kat Club environment. It achieves a) fantastically well and has a good stab at b) whilst forgetting the practicalities of being a theatregoer, with the result that there is an element of endurance test about it. And I can’t believe the Emcee would be happy with that. Leave your troubles outside, he insists, in the famous opening song; in here, life is beautiful.
Let’s come to that later. There’s so much about this production that enthrals you. Rebecca Frecknall’s new production comes to life as a theatre-in-the-round extravaganza, using a relatively small circular revolving stage that itself reveals endless surprises throughout the show. The cast spill out into the table area of the audience so that the edge of the acting area is blurred; at one stage during Two Ladies, a Cabaret boy and girl were performing unspeakable rumpy-pumpy nudged up against my left thigh. The staging calls for very expressive, inventive and carefully controlled choreography, and Julia Cheng has done a marvellous job creating the perfect moves for the confined space – absolutely thrilling.
After the first five minutes you also realise the quality of the singing voices – everyone blends and harmonises superbly; and with the intimacy of the presentation, the amazing clarity of sound doesn’t need that much artificial enhancement. It’s easy to forget how stage amplification can really distort voices, but here the music is just stunning. Even the orchestra is beautiful. Well, they sound it at any rate. And then there are the costumes! Emcee and the boys and girls wear a range of outrageous outfits, suggesting all manners of sexual self-expression, frequently topped off with a cheeky party hat. The respectable clothing of the more reserved characters, like Fräulein Schneider, Herr Schultz, and even Cliff Bradshaw, stand out in sharp contrast with the gaudy self-indulgence of the Kit Kat Coterie.
The show is studded with thrilling moments. The versatility of the revolving stage. The unique interaction between audience and cast that the intimate staging offers. Sexual tension invested in a pineapple. The shock comedy of the gorilla. Masturbation over Mein Kampf. The symbolic moment when Emcee smashes the glass in the traditional Jewish marriage good luck gesture. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment is when Sally Bowles delivers the big number Cabaret at the end of the show. As when Imelda Staunton tore up the rule book with her performance of Everything’s Coming up Roses in Gypsy, Amy Lennox’s rendition of this familiar song takes your breath away with its anger, its pain, its frustration, and its cruelty. You’ll never think of this song in the same way again.
As you might expect, the performances are outstanding. The above-mentioned Ms Lennox steals the show with her totally credible portrayal of Sally Bowles as a worn out trouper who slept her way to prominence. Her singing and stage presence are absolutely superb. Vivien Parry and Eliot Levey make a truly charming older couple, tentatively finding love against the odds. Omar Baroud’s Cliff is a kindly, benign presence, who takes everything in his stride including his bisexuality. Anna Jane Casey is a constant joy as Fräulein Kost, forever smuggling men out of her digs and incurring Fräulein Schneider’s disapproval. And the ensemble, who perform as the Cabaret Girls and Boys, are simply stunning. A veritable hotch-potch of shapes and sizes, genders and guises. You can’t pick out any particular actor but they all really make the show.
Fra Fee has the biggest job of all, having to take over from Eddie Redmayne who, by all accounts, was just incredible as the Emcee, insinuating himself around the stage, an unsettling and unmissable presence. Mr F is also blessed with an amazing stage presence, and he works his facial expressions and vocal tics brilliantly into the role; and of course he can carry off all the Emcee’s fantastic songs with supreme theatricality. He’s a deceptively playful Emcee, grinning maniacally at us all, which makes the shock of the horror that’s barely concealed beneath the surface, even more terrifying.
So, as a show it’s sensational, no question. But what about as an experience for the audience – particularly those who forked out a genuine fortune to sit at a cabaret table? This is where it’s not quite so sensational. There’s no doubt that you get a truly amazing intimate experience, right up close to the action, constant eye contact and other interaction with all the ensemble. But there are practicalities too. The downside of theatre in the round is that there will always be times when the actors face away from you. It’s particularly galling when, for the ultimate moment of the show, the finale of the song Cabaret, all we could see was Ms Lennox’s back.
When you arrive, via the stage door basement, your route takes you past some informal entertainment – a band playing at the Red Bar, and some dancers at the Gold Bar, but there’s no real direction as to what you should be doing, where you should be going, and how long you should be lingering in one place, which detracted from the enjoyment of these additional entertainments. I wonder what happens when it’s pouring with rain outside? There’s no cloakroom provision, and even on a pleasant evening like last Wednesday, there was nowhere for us to put our jackets apart from wedged between our legs on the floor. You can’t hang them over the backrest of your chair because the table behind is wedged up against it. If you had wet coats or umbrellas, you’d have a serious practical problem.
Toilet provision is poor, with very long queues; they’re gender neutral, which I guess is in keeping with the production, but women lining up in the same small space behind men using urinals is comfortable for no one. The meal is tasty and nutritious, but small; it takes no effort or gluttony to finish all three courses in under ten minutes. The champagne, at least, is excellent, but the £12 glass of Riesling at the interval was dismal. And £15 for a programme is outrageous. And that sticker on the phone – well, look what it did to Mrs Chrisparkle’s mobile – basically the cover is ruined.
Nevertheless, it’s a sensational, thrilling production and we loved every minute of it!