Review – Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, Playhouse Theatre, London, 27th April 2022

Kit Kat ClubTalk 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.

Playhouse TheatreThe 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.

Fra Fee in CabaretAfter 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.

Sally BowlesAs 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.

Omar Baroud in CabaretFra 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.

PhoneToilet 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!

Production photos by Marc BrennerFive Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Kinky Boots, Adelphi Theatre, 28th December 2015

Kinky BootsGreetings gentle reader! I trust you had a splendid Christmas and New Year’s break. During the holidays Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck our way in to see six productions – well, we paid to see them, we didn’t steal in and hope no one would notice. So I’d better start writing about them!

On the conveyor beltFirst up was a trip to the Adelphi Theatre for the matinee performance of Kinky Boots on Monday 28th December. For what it’s worth, in my forty-eight years of theatregoing, these tickets were the most expensive we’ve ever paid for a show – £95. That got us central seats in Row J of the Stalls, and in all fairness they were very good seats indeed. I’m quite fond of the Adelphi; it was one of the first London theatres I visited as a child (to see Charlie Girl in 1969), and it’s quite a treat to enjoy the building if you like a spot of Art Deco.

Lola and the AngelsI had a special interest in seeing this show; not because I’m (particularly) into kinky boots, but because I am a Northampton lad. The only other play or show that I can think of that is set (in part) in Northampton is a couple of scenes in Shakespeare’s King John. It’s so easy to decry one’s hometown – you only have to go to a comedy night when the visiting comic shouts out “What’s Northampton Like?” and at least a sizeable minority will shout back “it’s sh*t!” That happens everywhere. But I really like Northampton. It’s friendly, it’s attractive, it’s varied, it’s well located, it’s good value and it’s a beacon of excellence in The Arts. In my opinion, it’s not remotely sh*t. Shame, then, that one of the characters in Kinky Boots can’t wait to get away from the place and move to happening London, and another of the characters is so Neanderthal and prejudiced in his outlook that he gives the place a bad name. I’ve noted in the past that Northampton audiences may not be the world’s most sophisticated but we are never prejudiced! I remember thinking how great it would have been if Kinky Boots had been premiered at the Royal and Derngate. However, having seen it, I actually think that would have been a considerable mistake as the jibes about the place could easily rub a loyal East Midlander up the wrong way.

Lauren and CharlieNeither of us had seen the film on which the musical is based, but if you need one, here’s a brief outline. Young Charlie Price is heir to a shoe and boot factory in Northampton – Price and Sons. Charlie has no interest in following the family career, and his girlfriend, Nicola, is even less interested (she’s the one who can’t wait to get out). However, Charlie’s father (and director of the business) unexpectedly dies and it’s up to Charlie either to take on the mantle of the factory, or let it fizzle out and with it plunge all the staff into unemployment. Faced with that problem, and much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Charlie decides to give the factory a go. But it’s haemorrhaging money left right and centre. It’s only when he meets Lola – a particularly fabulous drag queen – that he gets the idea of specialising the business into the production of 2 feet 6 inches of tubular sex; a.k.a. glamorous boots that will specifically take the weight of a hefty bloke. Lola is recruited as designer and they aim to launch the range of kinky boots at a fashion show in Milan. But the course of true footwear manufacture never runs smooth, so will their quest be a hit or a miss? Will Charlie establish a successful change in the business, or will it just fold, and become a site for redevelopment into swanky flats as his girlfriend wants. You’ll have to watch the show to find out.

LaurenSometimes shows are precisely as good as you expect them to be; sometimes they’re not the sum of their parts. This is one of those happy occasions where it genuinely exceeds the sum of its parts! It has an excellent pedigree: book by Harvey Fierstein (surely no one’s going to get under the skin of a drag queen as expertly as Mr Fierstein) and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper (the perfect combination of bright pop music and funny/clever/optimistic lyrics). It’s directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, provider of pizazz to such fun shows as Legally Blonde, La Cage Aux Folles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Peter White’s band fairly whacks out the songs with gusto, and David Rockwell’s set is immensely satisfying, from the absolutely perfect depiction of the façade of a typical Northampton Footwear Factory, to a seemingly fully functioning workshop set up inside. The inventive use of factory conveyor belts to create a dynamic and moving platform on which to dance was one of the most enjoyable things I’d seen all year!

Big numberThere are some terrific performances which really bring the show to life – and no more so than the central character of Lola, played by Matt Henry. He brings such personality and joy to the stage that it’s impossible not to smile with him all the way through the show. There’s no mistaking that he’s a big bloke, Lola’s no shrinking violet; and it comes as no surprise that she has a mean uppercut when it comes to defending herself in the boxing ring. Mr Henry has a magnificent voice and stage presence and really does carry the show with him all the way. When he dresses and appears as his true self – Simon from Clacton – it’s amazing how he visibly self-diminishes into a meek and subdued person; it’s as though he is playing two characters. I also really loved the performance of Amy Lennox as Lauren, the factory worker who takes Charlie to task and challenges him to make a go of the business. She has a brilliant song, The History of Wrong Guys, which is pure Cyndi Lauper, where she tries her utmost not to fall in love with Charlie – and then gives up trying. It’s extremely funny but also very sincerely and rather movingly performed.

Real bootsKillian Donnelly plays Charlie Price with surefooted ease. Although he’s the main character, it’s not the most interesting role, as much of what takes place happens to him or for him rather than by him. But I did enjoy the developing friendship between him and Lola and there’s no doubt that Mr Donnelly is a very safe pair of hands and has a great voice. Amy Ross plays his girlfriend Nicola with a nice degree of hard-heartedness; Jamie Baughan takes on the role of Don, the homophobic Neanderthal, which can’t be an easy experience in a show like this, and you really believe what a nasty piece of work he is. The six actors who play The Angels also make very convincing and entertaining drag queens. In fact, I’ll let you into a secret – it was only when I read the cast list during the interval that I realised the performers were all men. I thought that probably at least one was; and maybe a couple of the others looked a bit rough; but I had no idea they all were! Simple, innocent me.

Charlie and NicolaAll in all a very entertaining and well produced show which kept the audience happy throughout. I can even forgive it (just about) for being so negative about Northampton. I’m sure it will do great business!

Angels and LolaP.S. Those flats that Nicola wanted to create from the shell of the factory – they’re described as luxury riverside apartments. Riverside? Yes, we do have the good old River Nene but it goes nowhere near the Boot and Shoe Quarter (as the Council has rechristened The Mounts). Back to the drawing board with that one, literally.

In the officeP.P.S. We discovered that the husband of an ex-colleague of Mrs C went to school with the original Kinky Boots Man on whom this story is based. Fiction and fact colliding in the streets of Northamptonshire, who would have believed it? Apparently the factory has closed again. Ah well, at least they made a good musical out of it.

Production photos by Johan Persson.