Cabaret: A Dark & Twisted Take on the Glitzy Classic

Tuesday 3rd March 2020 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Cabaret returns to the stage in a raw and playfully warped form in this latest tour of the the 1966 musical (Book: Joe Masteroff, Music and lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb). Directed by Rufus Norris with an unnerving flair for the dark underbelly of the story, this is a Cabaret with splintered bulbs where the healthy bright lights are expected to be.

It’s 1930s Berlin and the heights of hedonism are seducing newcomers like our dashing young yankee Cliff Bradshaw (Charles Hagerty) in venues off the beaten track. Despite love affairs and friendships forming for him, times are taking a dark turn as Nazi power insidiously stalks the background of the razzmatazz of the Kabaret Club – where everyone is beautiful and the ugly world outside a dismissed memory. Yet while excess, gleeful sensuality and rebellion may abound, we’re never far from reminders that every character we meet is facing peril of one kind or another.

In this production, when it’s bleak, it’s bleak and when it’s bright lights and big noise it’s efficiently so. Even the club numbers betray a sense of having plenty of talent but not much money rolling around in the place. Katrina Lindsay’s set designs are all apparatus and little adornment, with costuming, sliding set pieces and giant lettering carrying the burden of the spectacle demanded well. Raunchy costume designs allow for Javier De Frutos’ combinations of jagged and seductive choreography to pick up any slack created by the darkness of narrative lying between musical numbers and the ensemble are a lively, talented bunch who string the component parts together, taking us to the depths of Kabaret indulgence in style.

John Partridge’s take on the Emcee is all hyper-sexual mania and he certainly puts his own stamp on the role, purring lines in throwbacks to his Cats days and shrieking others like an unhinged banshee intent on bursting eardrums. Unsettling and wild, he warns us from the off that we’re not in for an easy ride but rather a production which sledgehammers us in various directions. It does however feel a little wasteful to have Partridge perform the bulk of his numbers in this manic manner considering his vocal talents but thankfully those pipes get an outing later on. Partridge also leads the show’s highlight – a dark puppeteering sequence (fiendishly lit through Tim Oliver’s designs) which provides the kind of stylish performative flair I went in hoping for.

Surprising here are the Sally Bowles numbers. Kara Lily Hayworth’s vocals which shone so beautifully in Cilla The Musical recently are frequently drowned out by the exuberant band. Until Maybe This Time, the vocals and performances are those of an ingenue not quite at ease on stage (though clearly charismatic), not a performer who relishes their time under the lights as Sally claims. Perhaps most impressive in Hayworth’s departure from the usual gregarious take on Bowles though is her rendition of the title song which dismisses the philosophically flippant tone usually associated with it and replaces it with something altogether more arresting and desperate.

Most interesting in this production in fact is the narrative of the landlady Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and her love interest Herr Schultz (James Paterson). It’s a refreshing angle for a show so intertwined with expectations of the irreverent, vice-filled cabaret club as primary focus. In shifting focus in this way, we’re given so much more poignancy and the background becomes compelling foreground carried by unexpectedly gravitational characters. It’s in their relationship that I found myself investing.

Niggling away at me though is the fact that even while the production demonstrates a significant power to move and interrogate alongside all the entertainment, it somewhat undermines itself with a muddled closing sequence which pitches the entertainment of the club against a harrowing background tableau. It’s a sharply unexpected gut punch but the delivery overall slips into a throwaway use of something which is deserving of so much more pause. It’s a choking visual and capable of delivering an explosive finish but too soon we’re thrust into bows accompanied by a jolly run through of the score which gets the audience jovially clapping in time. Talk about jarring and disturbing. 

There’s a sense overall here that the production doesn’t quite want to decide what it is, preferring to beguile instead. Is it a disturbing, anything-goes comedy of the wildest breed? Is it a socio-historical drama with songs thrown in? Is it a grim reincarnation of a show we’ve come to expect to have glitz, glamour and dazzle as its starting and finishing blocks? In short, yes to all of the above… It’s a brave staging with plenty of talent and flair For dramatics on display but it ultimately falls somewhere between the blinding lights we expected and a brutal darkness thrown at us without warning – and without ever really deciding what it wants our parting mood to be.

This production of Cabaret is presented by Bill Kenwright and plays The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until March 7th 2020 (tickets here). The show then Continues to tour until April 25th 2020 and you can find dates and tickets here.

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