Confrontational and decidedly unsettling, Cabaret is the antithesis of frothy, escapist musicals. Deftly directed by Karen Pickles, this production presented its darker-than-dark themes in a full-blooded, uninhibited fashion, and did so with great success. From the very start it was clear that we were being drawn into a world of edgy uneasiness as the EmCee welcomed us to the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy den that acts as a metaphor for a nation sliding inexorably from economic depression towards the horrors of Nazism. Jonty O’Callaghan as EmCee captured the ambiguities of those times beautifully. His ‘Willkommen’ seemed laden with promises of pleasures to come, but there was a distinct sense of danger, too. Gloriously camp, seemingly all-knowing and with a barbed sense of humour, he engaged the audience with a startling directness; his confident, magnetic performance ensuring that we became as much his customers as the sailors drifting into the club seeking a little down-market hedonism. Then in walks Clifford, a young American whose ambition to be a novelist is somewhat hampered by the sad fact that he has no story to tell. He has been invited to the club by Ernst, a Nazi sympathiser who Cliff has unwittingly aided in smuggling in funds for the party. Dallas Carter’s sensitive portrayal portrayed both Cliff’s fundamental decency and his naivety; it was clear that this was the first time that Cliff had ever been anywhere like the Kit Kat Klub. Dallas’s American accent was very impressive – indeed, convincing accents abounded throughout the show.
A troupe of dancers enter, their risqué cheekiness projected with infectious energy by Anna Kotik, Marina Mestres Segarra, Tatenda Moyo, Sorel Read, Georgie Dixon and Azaria Bromwich. The dancers’ raciness is matched by the unashamedly provocative behaviour of the ‘telephone girls’, played by Anna Fitzgerald, Sophie Scrase, Nola Balogan and Zara Ward. Further contributions to this heady nightclub atmosphere came from ensemble actors Rachel Helman, Rebecca Kenyon, Kelly Zhu, Sarah McCallum-Orm, Jessy Harper-Solomon and Lilli Travis.
EmCee announces the star of the show. She is Sally Bowles and Cliff cannot take his eyes off her. Xanthe Lynden was perfectly cast as Sally, an unconventional romantic fantasist whose singing offers an escape from the harsh realities that she neither wants to recognise nor understand. Xanthe has a superb voice and an exceptional ability to convey character in song. She revealed Sally as a charismatic mix of vivacity and vulnerability. Her song and dance number ‘Don’t tell Mama’ was delivered with enormous energy - a captivating, five-star performance.
Cliff and Sally’s passionate but doomed romance runs in parallel with a more tentative and tender relationship that develops between Cliff’s impoverished old landlady, Frau Schneider, and a fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz. Every telling gesture in Emma Johnsey Smith’s touching interpretation conveyed Frau Schneider’s physical frailty. Frau Schneider is very fond of Herr Schultz, but she chooses loneliness rather than the companionship of marriage, for Schultz is Jewish, and society violently disapproves. Emma beautiful singing of ‘What would you do?’ movingly illustrated Frau Schneider’s moral dilemma. Anthony Moll expertly depicted Herr Schultz as a man whose gentlemanly instincts and sense of propriety will not protect him from what is to come. ‘I am a German myself –I understand Germans’ he says. But tragically he is mistaken, for he is living in the past and his world is changing.
That change is signalled when a strong, deep voice rings out as the young men in the club deliver a stirring song that gradually reveals itself as a Hitler Youth anthem, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. William Sharpe-Neal was in fine voice in the latter, his confident, clear voice speaking of a new world of terrifying certainties. William was well supported by Magnus Pawlyn, Daniel Stolworthy and George McHattie. There is a further transitional shift in mood when the saucy high kicks of the dancing girls transmute into militaristic goose-steps and their feathery fans are swopped for swastika armbands. Then Cliff’s erstwhile friend Ernst, once so courteous and civilised, reveals himself to be rabidly anti-Semitic and capable of extremely unpleasant Nazi thuggery. Jem Crawley portrayed both his apparent urbanity and his downright viciousness with equal skill. Another character who reveals a previously hidden unpleasantness is Frau Kost, one of the tenants in Frau Schneider’s house. Initially we see her as a woman kept extremely busy by the visitations of her many sailor ‘cousins’, and we watch her attempts to hide her activities from Frau Schneider with a mixture of disapproval and amusement. Alice Allen played this aspect of Frau Kost’s character with a knowing charm but later, as she reprised ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ with great power and menace, we realise that Frau Kost is a Nazi fanatic. But quite the most startling shift in mood in the show comes in the song ‘If you could see her’, sung by Jonty O’Callaghan’s EmCee as he dances with a girl in a gorilla costume (played winningly by Cerys Martin). Earlier we had been amused the broad comedy of ‘Two Ladies’, again sung by Jonty, aided and abetted by Zara Ward and Natasha Binnie. ‘Two ladies’ is silly fun, and ‘If you could see her’ seems to be equally harmless, jokingly inviting us to see the ugly gorilla’s inner beauty. But there is a sudden twist in the final payoff line; we discover that we have been duped into conspiring in a racist joke. This is perhaps the show’s most challengingly controversial moment, and it was carried off with chilling effectiveness.
Sam Hollis Pack’s clever set efficiently succeeded in being both nightclub and boarding house, and back projections gave us a train compartment and a fruit shop, too. Choreographer Jody Lewarne created dance sequences that were enormous fun and which had a 1930s authenticity about them. Under the direction of Daniel Robson the on-stage orchestra performed John Kander’s score with great skill, the cheerful jauntiness of the tunes offering an ironic contrast to the darkness of the events being depicted.
Taken out of context, the title song ‘Cabaret’ can be seen as celebration of entertainment itself. But it is sung very near the end of the show, when it is clear that the impending catastrophe will engulf everyone. Having failed to persuade Sally to leave with him, Cliff has returned to America but, yes, she will be the subject of his novel. Sally Bowles has believed that politics happen only to other people, but she couldn’t be more wrong. Soon she and her fellow entertainers will lose their lives; the escape from reality offered by a life in show-business is illusory. Xanthe sang ‘Cabaret’ with a deeply moving mixture of defiance and desperation. That song stayed in my head for days afterward, but even more memorable has been Cabaret’s powerful message about the dangers of extremism, delivered with a visceral punch in this courageous production. All those involved should be very proud of their achievement.