All entries for Saturday 30 August 2008

August 30, 2008

Cabaret @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Following the recent Shakespeare binge, something a bit different last night - the first preview of the new touring production of Cabaret at Birmingham Rep. A revival of the West End production, with most of the same creative team but an almost entirely new cast, the production is staying in Birmingham for a couple of weeks before heading out around the country.

I'm not convinced, after this and the San Francisco production, that Cabaret is actually a particularly good piece of theatre. The plot is flimsy, and devotes far too much time to a fairly dull subplot. There are holes everywhere, and some of the songs - mostly the ones set outside the Kit Kat Club - are particularly tedious. It may be that I've just not seen a truly great production yet, but on the evidence thus far I'm convinced that the heavily re-worked film version is infinitely superior. However, I'm not reviewing the writing, but the production, and the play's faults are not the company's.

The chief attraction of this production was the professional stage debut of Samantha Barks, one of the final three on I'd Do Anything (a genre of programme which, I admit, I have very little time for). In point of fact, this being the first preview, this was presumably her first professional appearance, making this perhaps her first review? In any case, despite the ongoing debates about the merits of these reality-musical programmes, we can thank the BBC for Barks. She gave a fantastic central performance, all voice and charisma. Her Sally Bowles was relatively softly-spoken, bringing out the vulnerability of the character to great effect and investing us emotionally in the dilemmas she faced as Cliff grew ever more distant and cruel. Her singing voice was excellent, particularly stunning in Mein Herr and, of course, Cabaret itself, and she also proved herself as a dancer, backed up by an excellent line. The beautiful Maybe This Time, sung alone on Cliff's bed, was one of the most uplifting moments of the show, and watching Sally decline over the second act was heartbreaking. As actress, performer and singer, Barks couldn't have given a better debut performance and hopefully she'll only grow in confidence as the run continues.

The other big name was Wayne Sleep, reprising his role as the Emcee. Sleep's performance was overall surprisingly disappointing, albeit with flashes of brilliance. This Emcee was a nasty little man, the cruel owner of the club who threw Sally out before the applause had faded on her final performance. His age and short stature added to the unpleasantness of the character, fondling the young leggy dancers with a leer. For most of the play, the Emcee didn't give away his humanity or his beliefs, staying in role as the lecherous host and providing the innuendo and spectacle. While this was extremely effective in getting across the decadence of Berlin, it meant the play felt far shallower than it perhaps should. Whereas in San Francisco the Emcee's hints at humanity and glances at the action tied in his numbers, making them satirical commentary on events, here the Emcee felt completely separate from what was going on, simply indulging his own fantasies. Songs such as Two Ladies or The Money Song were therefore great fun and well-performed, but felt like diversions rather than expansions of the themes. I don't know what the script dictates, but in SF The Money Song followed on directly from Cliff and Sally's arguments over the importance of money, while here the two were separated by the reprise of Tomorrow Belongs to Me which meant that Money lost its resonance.

The song which contained both the highlights and lowlights of Sleep's performance was the ever-difficult If You Could See Her. In a neat idea, the pig-faced Jewess was attached to the Emcee's back, he simply turning his back on the audience in order to display her. The close attachment of the 'couple' allowed for some beautiful moments, particularly as Sleep defensively placed her arms as if shielding her from the world. Halfway through the song, for the dance break, a fast-moving curtain deftly replaced Sleep with another dancer dressed in the same way, who performed a spectacular 'backwards' dance, making the dummy woman jump about in convincing ballet moves, one of the best dances of the evening. As the break ended, a 'mistake' with the curtain revealed that it wasn't, in fact, Sleep who had been performing the dance. While funny, this began a horrendous segment in which Sleep remonstrated with the audience for not believing it had been him, shouting "Do you think I'm too old to do that anymore?" With audience encouragement, Sleep went into a long period of comedy dances, ending one with pretended back pain, before finishing off in a dance duet with his double. This moment served to make the Emcee look like a pantomime dame rather than the cutting character the rest of the play hinted at. And yet, Sleep still managed to redeem himself with a truly blinding finale, which I'll come to later. The performance wasn't bad as such, but his role within the musical seemed to be confused - commentator, showman, funnyman, conscience, all combined to messy effect.

This was the first preview, so unsurprisingly there were a few technical glitches with microphones and set changes which can be fairly ignored. Katrina Lindsay's design was exciting throughout, from the auditorium high 'WILLKOMEN' letters that the audience were greeted with on arrival to the slightly surreal backstage areas with moving mirrors, sliding ladders (a feature throughout) and multiple levels with glimpses into the sordid back rooms of the club. Some interesting staging decisions greatly increased the fluidity - the bed frames in Cliff's room, for example, became the cages in which the dancers performed Don't Tell Mama.

The growing Nazi threat was shown in the background throughout, the director Rufus Norris choosing to allow the audience to gradually become aware of what was going on. In an early scene, a young blonde boy was seen being moved on by dancers as he started to sing a song. Later, as Cliff returned from Paris, the same boy appeared again before person-high letters spelling BERLIN, this time unchallenged as he began Tomorrow Belongs to Me. As in the film, the performer (Theo Cook) had a beautiful voice and completely nailed the song, which sent a shiver down the spine as more and more voices joined in. Interestingly, the stage was full as he began, and the voices came in as the rest of the performers left, having the interesting effect of showing him increasingly powerful as he became more alone. In the background, though, a more disturbing tableuax of naked bodies facing away from us was appearing, an unexplained image reminiscent of concentration camps. It was to this image that the play returned in its finale. With letters spelling KABARET placed at the front of the stage, the naked bodies again appeared, shivering and shaking. The Nazi entered and, one by one, pushed over all the letters, the thud of each one drawing a scream from the bodies. Standing next to the central 'A' (which remained standing), the Emcee addressed the audience coolly as he asked "Where are your troubles now?" Finishing his speech, he pushed over the 'A', turned away, took off his clothes and joined the rest of the huddled bodies as they cowered in fear, before the lights blacked out. This powerful ending (aside from drawing quite inappropriate laughs as Sleep took off his clothes) was an excellent close to the story, drawing last-minute prominence to the terrors that had surrounded the activity. It would have been even better had it felt like the Emcee was building to this throughout the show, but the moment was strong enough to stand by itself.

Jenny Logan and Matt Zimmerman gave decent performances as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, investing even slight material such as So What? with a bit of dignity, and the sweet It Couldn't Please Me More, complete with hula-girls appearing at the sides, was particularly well done. It's a slight subplot, if a sad one, but well-performed. Also good was Henry Luxemburg as Cliff, who gave a nicely complicated turn that showed a sophisticated approach to his bisexuality. Simultaneously impulsive but tongue-tied about his preferences, Luxemburg's Cliff was driven by emotion and sensation, despite his continual promises to get his life in order. As the political climate slowly turned him to despair, his behaviour towards Sally became odious, refusing to listen and instead trying to make her decisions for her. Sally's abortion became a reaction to his controlling, a way to wrest control of her own destiny back from him. The turn in his character took on a tragic dimension, ruining his own happiness through an inability to see the small picture, the woman in front of him. His beautiful Why Should I Wake Up? summed up the entire feel of the production, a minor song suddenly seeming achingly important.

As said, this was a first preview and therefore one can't expect the production to be at it's best yet. Even at this early stage, though, it seems they're on to a winner. The cast were excellent, the songs and dances expertly choreographed (I haven't given enough time to the dancers, and in particularly Javier de Frutos' continually innovative choreography, giving each number its own look and style) and the growing darkness well realised. If the songs were better fitted to the action, and the Emcee's role given careful consideration, this would be even better. Oh, and the orchestra were beautiful.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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