Dir: Rufus Norris
150 min • Savoy Theatre • From October 3, 2012
Made famous by the 1972 Bob Fosse-directed film starring Liza Minelli, Kander and Ebbs’ dark, political musical has become best known for its title song, which has been transformed from a drug-fuelled emotional breakdown into an end-of-the pier standard, so I imagine large numbers of the audience who filled the Savoy Theatre to see Will Young and Michelle Ryan might not have been expecting sex, nudity and copious amounts of cocaine – but as a representation of the decadent 1930s’ Berlin club scene, it’s spot on. Loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin, the show centres around a (mostly) homosexual American writer, Cliff, who travels to Berlin in search of inspiration but finds distraction in the form of Sally Bowles, an English backstreet cabaret performer at debauched Berlin hot spot the Kit Kat Klub. Presented to us as a cabaret of its own, our evening is presided over by the club’s Emcee.
This same production ran at the Lyric Theatre in 2006 before going on tour, and it’s the touring production that has been brought to the West End in 2012. Constantly evolving, the piece went through various changes the several times I saw it at the Lyric, and it had been modified for the tour, with the choreography and staging changed, the nudity & sex slightly toned down (perhaps for a touring audience). But overall the transition from West End show to travelling production has been done exquisitely. Contemporary dance maverick Javier De Frutos has created some of the most beautiful choreography I have seen in a musical, perfectly capturing the debauchery of the period. The stunning direction, by Award Wining Opera Director Rufus Norris, is deliciously dark, and serves the piece perfectly.
Pop star Will Young, making his West End debut as the debauched Emcee, gives a layered performance that ranges from violent caricature to stark realism. Considering where his fame stems from, it’s refreshing that his well known singing voice takes a back seat. Young’s Emcee is dark, funny, at points attractive and alluring, and at others repulsive and disgusting, which is just as he should be. It does feel as if he’s playing it for laughs a little too much, but I suspect that’s more in the direction than an artistic choice on his part. Michelle Ryan is an engagingly decadent Sally Bowles, her confidence borders on obnoxious, a smokescreen for her beautifully crafted fragility. Matt Rawle, who (if I’m honest) I normally don’t like, is a well drawn and sensitive Cliff, and this is easily the best performance I have seen him give in a while. The ever-brilliant Sian Phillips is, perhaps, a little old to be playing Fräulein Scheider, but excels in the role, making her several slightly dreary numbers come alive. Harriet Thorpe reprises her role as the promiscuous Fräulein Kost, completely obliterating any memory of babies in drawers and the TV role that made her famous. The ensemble has been stripped down, and whilst looking a little thin on the ground, each section is danced flawlessly, with the perfect balance of technical ability and debauchery.
I won’t lie, the nudity and choreographed drug use in the production’s original incarnation excited me more than this sanitised version (there’s a surprise), but some of the changes are for the better. ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’, clumsily played by James Dreyfus as the Emcee previously, is given a reworking that the finale of it made my blood run cold, and the first act closer ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ is sung not by a handsome Nazi, but by Will Young’s Emcee. It is terrifyingly inventive. I won’t give too much away – I thought it was THAT clever – but it was so chilling it made me grin from ear to ear (I’m morbid!).
My only problem? The same one I had with it the first time round – Cabaret is never done in the way it was written. Songs are taken out (the excellent ‘Telephone Song’ is almost always omitted, despite describing the workings of the Kit Kat Klub perfectly) and this time we lose ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ in favour of ‘Mein Herr’ (incidentally, Michelle Ryan’s ‘Mein Heir’ is beyond stunning), and ‘Maybe This Time’ is once again crowbarred into the show, being one of the most famous songs from the film. This production would feel all the more visceral and relevant had it been done as written, without pandering to the masses, but that could be said for most theatre these days.
This is a great production, beautifully designed and excecuted, with a tremendous cast that invest completely in what they’re doing, and my one small gripe didn’t detract from that. This is one of my favourite theatrical experiences of the past few years, and the most perfectly cast I’ve seen it. I would rush back to see this production again, and hopefully before it closes I will. I urge you to do the same. Don’t go expecting a Liza Minelli style 11th hour number though, this is totally different sort of Cabaret, and it’s all the better for it.