Cabaret

Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue

(2006)

Review by Philip Fisher

Amid an autumn and winter of big-budget musicals in which no expense has been spared to provide glitz and imported glamour, Rufus Norris's new interpretation of Cabaret bucks the trend.

Readers will have fond memories of Bob Fosse's film version starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York but this time around, by emphasising the text and the theatricality of the piece, Norris is far closer to his sensational, very dark production of Festen.

One major change from the film is in the nationalities of the protagonists. Anna Maxwell Martin who is fast becoming a hot property after successes on the BBC as Esther Summerson in Bleak House and on stage as Lyra in His Dark Materials plays an ever so English Sally Bowles with a perfect plummy accent.

To make this work, Cliff Bradshaw, the alter ego of Christopher Isherwood who wrote the short stories on which the play is based, is played by an American with a nice light singing voice, Michael Hayden.

Katrina Lindsay's set and costumes set us firmly in Berlin at the start of the 1930s with a live band kicking up a storm at the back. The main setting is the Kit Kat Klub, governed by the watchful Emcee played with sleazy wit by James Dreyfus.

His biggest highlight amongst many is when he simultaneous the plays a groom and his piggy bride while skipping around beautifully and singing If You Could See Her, an allegory about the fate of the Jews of his city.

The Klub's crew of singers and dancers, well drilled by choreographer Javier de Frutos, explore sexual ambiguity often in graphic detail to ensure that this is a musical to which only adults should be invited.

The music is raunchy but black humour is never far away. The musical high point is a beautiful rendition of Tomorrow Belongs To Me led by Alastair Brookshaw, whose voice comes close to a counter tenor. The irony is that this melodic song represents Berlin's first sight of the Nazis and a terrifying future ahead.

Before that, love blossoms between Sally and Cliff and this is mirrored in their seedy boarding house when its owner, the ageing Fraulein Schneider, played by Sheila Hancock who delivers her songs with light efficiency, falls for the equally professional Geoffrey Hutchings as Herr Schultz. That love is doomed because the man who seduces her with pineapples and oranges is a Jew.

The big production numbers, Cabaret and Maybe This Time could not be more different from the film equivalents. This is because Liza Minnelli has a powerful and tuneful voice and absolutely belts them out while Anna Maxwell Martin is clearly a talented actress turned into a nightclub chanteuse. The company supports her well and her under-powered voice helps to bring out the vulnerability that Sally, the seemingly irrepressible immigrant hides inches beneath her brash facade.

Rufus Norris is a very talented director who is willing to take risks and much of the interval discussion will centre on what appears to be a gratuitous nude scene, as the Hitler Youth movement begins to take over polite society.

He is far too canny for that and by the end, as that scene is recalled, it takes on a deep and chilling symbolism that helps the entire production to make sense.

This evening's entertainment could hardly be more different than the current production of Kander and Ebb's other big hit, Chicago or its own film version. It may not have the mass appeal of the mighty musicals but it could have a dedicated following and might just achieve cult status.