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Cabaret - New Wimbledon Theatre (Review)

Cabaret

Review by David Munro

ALTHOUGH Cabaret has been revived several times in London over the years, to most people’s mind it means Liza Minnelli sitting on a chair in the film.

Although the film is memorable in many ways it’s basically a star vehicle for Minnelli who is several light-years distant from the Sally Bowles originally portrayed by Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin.

The original was a dumpy little English chorus girl making do in the Berlin of the ’30s by cabaret work and prostitution. She was a sad little character who ended up, one is led to believe, a suburban housewife in Cobham or Woking, or some such town in the Surrey suburbs.

In the musical, Joe Masteroff makes her a more positive and bizarre character; taking from the original a refusal to face up to life or its consequences. It is hard to understand (and particularly in this production) how her character was unable to accept the effect of the rise of Nazism and the ultimate horrors it produced, for I warn you that if you go expecting a nice cosy little show – forget it.

Rufus Norris’ brilliant staging leaves little to the imagination, including the hustling of Jews into wagons and their subsequent immolation in the gas chambers.

The story, if you need to know, follows the visit of Clifford Bradshaw, a novelist manque, to Berlin in the 1930s to gain material for a novel. He becomes involved with Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer, who shacks up with him.

He also becomes involved in smuggling for the Nazis and when he realises what he is doing, refuses to continue, gets beaten up and leaves Berlin and Sally, who ignores what he tries to tell her about the regime; this, despite the fact that their landlady’s romance is broken up by the Nazis because her fiance is a Jew.

This very slender tale is bolstered by musical numbers ostensibly performed by the MC of the Kit Kat club and his girls (and boys). These numbers comment on the ongoing situation in true Berlin cabaret style and make a welcome break, brilliantly performed as they are by Wayne Sleep as the MC and members of the chorus.

I say members of the chorus but each boy or girl is made up as a recognizable type of person one would expect to find hanging around or appearing in a sleazy nightclub at that time and who transform, as the evening progresses, into Nazi Storm Troopers and sycophants.

In effect, this production is really on two levels (actually as well as metaphorically due to a brilliant set which has balconies and little rooms from which the action on stage is overseen).

While there is the Sally Bowles/Clifford story, intercut by the Cabaret numbers as the main plot, this is played out against the background of the developing Nazi takeover with its harbinger of worse to come, a menace which is ever present: Stormtroopers patrolling behind the scene, which is playing and silently hustling characters off stage or cuffing them.

For this to work you need a good cast, which there is in this production. As I have noted, Wayne Sleep is brilliant as the MC. He also turns up as other characters throughout the evening, adding to the general feeling of insecurity.

Siobhan Dillon almost gets away with Sally Bowles and, in fact, succeeded in showing her vulnerability better than her brashness. I felt she was a little insecure in the role as her performance improved noticeably as the evening matured and I think Bowles is in her if only she would let her out.

Clifford Bradshaw is an ill-defined part, he is an onlooker who gets unwillingly involved in other people’s affairs. Henry Luxemburg fleshes him out well and makes him sympathetic and believable. He also has an excellent voice which he knows how to use as his rendition of Why Should I Wake Up proved.

As the ill fated elderly couple, Jenny Logan as Fraulein Schneider and Matt Zimmermann as Herr Schultz, are charming. Logan depicts very well the resigned elderly Hausfrau, who has survived a war and countless setbacks, and feels she will survive the future if she keeps her head down; if marriage is going to bring her into conflict with the authorities – then marriage must go.

Rufus Norris and designer Katrina Lindsay have devised a mobile set that is entirely versatile; a station one minute, a bedroom two minutes later. This is developed by skeletal staircases and Ladders which cross the stage bearing members of cast as necessary.

There is also a clutter of iron bedsteads which are called into use at the slightest excuse to represent something or other and which even join in a dance number from time to time!

It is a beautifully staged imaginative production which underlines all the more cogently the horrifying subplot; it is moving and gut gripping, yet not offensive. Is this the ultimate Cabaret? I doubt it but it’s certainly the one I shall remember for a long, long time.

Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff.
Based on a play by John van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isheerwood.
Music by John Kander.
Lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Director – Rufus Norris.
Choreographer – Javier de Frutos.
Set designer – Katrina Lindsay.
Lighting – Jean Kalman.
Sound – Ben Harrison.
Musical director – Tom de Keyser.

CAST: Wayne Sleep; Siobhan Dillon; Jenny Logan; Mat Zimmerman; Henry Luxemburg; Karl Moffatt; Basienka Blake; Dawn Bowen; Theo Cook; Jessica Ellen; Lucy James; Hendrick January; Alastair Postlethwaite; Rebecca Scarrott; Caroline Scott; Cydney Uffindell-Phillips; Jay Webb; Tom Woods.

Presented by Bill Kenwright. New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG.
Mon, October 26 – Saturday, October 31, 2009
Evenings: 7.30pm/Matinees: Thurs & Sat: 2.30pm
Box Office: 0870 060 6646.