Cabaret at Playhouse Theatre
Cabaret is one of those theatrical productions that most people will have come across at some point in their lives, with a long history that dates back to the 1939 short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, followed by an adaptation by John Van Druten into the 1951 play I Am a Camera, and later John Kander’s musical in 1966. For many, its most memorable turn came in the form of the 1972 film with a cast led by Liza Minelli.
The story takes as its setting a nightclub in 1931 Berlin against the backdrop of the Nazis inching their way to power. The goings-on at the club, focused around the relationship between larger-than-life cabaret performer Sally Bowles and bisexual American writer Cliff Bradshaw, emerge as a metaphor for the political developments happening outside its walls.
Such well-known musicals can have the double-edged issue of being familiar classics and a natural draw for audiences, while also suffering from constant comparisons with their previous incarnations, needing to bring something new to their delivery while being true to the source material. With this latest version, that difficult line has been well trodden. Firstly, London’s Playhouse Theatre, a stone’s throw from the River Thames, has been transformed into the deliciously seedy Kit Kat Club, complete with an immersive, pre-performance 1920s cabaret experience, with suspender and corset-clad burlesque dancers and accordionists weaving through the crowd or dancing from atop balconies overhanging the bar. This warm welcome means by the time the audience is seated around the 360-degree stage there is already a sense of being transported to the story’s time and setting, as well as a simmering, joyous party vibe. What ensues is a take on the musical that has all the well-known music, but is brought to life afresh with a spectacular, diverse, gender-blending cast and the star power of Jessie Buckley as Bowles and Eddie Redmayne as the Master of Ceremonies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buckley simply dazzles – almost to a fault, in fact. The anticipation builds for her arrival on stage and the climatic elation of the subversively raunchy, full-throttle principal dance and song numbers – and it is very much worth the wait. She more than exceeds expectations, nailing the vocals we were first introduced to when she auditioned to play Nancy on TV show I’d Do Anything, and bringing her singular, edgy presence to the stage, notably in a sensational rendition of Mein Herr. But as the story progresses and the musical delves further into its darker recesses, there’s a sense of longing for her to return to the action more than her character allows.
There’s a similar sense with Redmayne, who is nothing short of electric as Emcee, accentuating the quirk and black humour in his German character’s lines and songs such as Wilkommen – “Here life is beautiful… The girls are beautiful… Even the orchestra is beautiful!” – with a borderline-contortionist, muscular physicality to his performance that at times brings to mind Jim Carey in roles such as the Batman Forever’s The Riddler.
But that longing for more is by no means down to any deficiency in the rest of the cast. Special mention should go to Omari Douglas, who tops his critically-acclaimed turn in Constellations as Bradshaw, particularly coming into his own in the second half (though there was perhaps something missing in the sexual chemistry between his Bradshaw and Buckley’s Bowles). The doomed later-in-life love story between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz is played with charm and palpable passion by Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey.
The execution of the creative choreography and aesthetic is also visually arresting throughout, particularly in the impeccable, jewel-hued,1920s-silk-undergarment-heavy costumes of the ensemble cast and on famed numbers such as Money Money. And while the tone shifts further and further away from the hedonistic sexiness and vulgar comedy that oozes from the first half, Rebecca Frecknall’s production’s gradual leaning into the melancholy and dark notes make them feel even more poignant in contrast. The repeated refrain “life is a cabaret old chum” by the end is dripping in deep irony.
Whether or not the experience is heightened by the minimal opportunities to enjoy theatre over the last two years – and the looming spectre of returning restrictions – this bold and contemporary revisiting of Cabaret is mesmerising, moving and intoxicating in all the ways only live theatre can be.
Cabaret is at Playhouse Theatre until 1st October 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.