As someone only marginally familiar with the world of the Kit Kat Klub in 1930s Berlin, my knowledge of - and appreciation for - the musical phenomenon Cabaret before seeing this production began and ended with Liza Minelli’s spine-tingling rendition of “Maybe This Time” from the 1966 film adaptation.
So, I thought I was prepared for what was in store for me. I was wrong.
From the opening bars of “Wilkommen”, I was transported to a secret underground world of drugs and debauchery, of sex and showgirls, of sexuality and seediness. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the depths of Berlin nightlife. And I loved it!
The character of Emcee, played flawlessly by theatrical veteran John Partridge, was a perfect mix between the sensual eccentricity of Rocky Horror’s Frank-N-Furter and the delicious theatricality of Moulin Rouge’s Harold Zidler, the ideal aid to steer the audience through the decadence and debauchery of Berlin’s underground scene in the 1930s during the rise of the Nazi Party.
There was so much to celebrate in this production. Directed by Rufus Norris, it was clear that this show was the perfect balance of the familiar and the unexpected (for me, the mark of a truly good show). The set of the Kit Kat Klub was just the right amount of seedy, with the set designed perfectly to be dynamic and exciting, always keeping the audience guessing what’s coming next. This stroke of genius by set designer Katrina Lindsay - including a huge illuminated “Kabaret” sign suspended above the stage - for me really epitomised a bygone era of jazz, hard liquor and fast women. However, if I had to be critical of this aspect of the show, I’d say (rightly or wrongly) that all the attention of the director and set designer was so focussed on the Kit Kat Klub, almost to the detriment of every other set throughout the show. I think more could have been done to give the “wow factor” to every part of the show.
Similarly, while I understood immediately the need for skimpy costumes and raw sexuality given the show’s subject matter, I thought in some places the raucousness was quite gratuitous. I lost count the amount of vulgar (and in my mind, unnecessary) hand gestures of the Emcee - whether swearing at the audience or something much more untoward. Likewise, there was a moment where a male cast member dropped his towel deliberately, unashamedly parading around the stage with nothing on. This to me was unnecessary, designed to shock rather than to enhance the story.
That said, there were moments of sheer theatrical perfection interweaved between the gasps of shock and titters of nervous laughter from the audience.
One of these moments came from the raw, emotional delivery of protagonist Sally’s arguably most famous solo of the show, Maybe This Time. It’s clear the immensely talented Kara Lily Hayworth wanted to add her own unique take on such a mammoth song, so instead of belting it out Minelli-style, she took her time to build up the emotional connection with the audience. A brave, bold choice, but one that completely paid off.
If I had one criticism of such an emotionally-charged scene though, I thought the next scene started almost before the applause ended, so I’d have given more time for the audience to take in the depth of the song as the character is debating whether her unexpected pregnancy will be the start of something better for her, the chance of a new beginning. This kind of raw emotion - reminiscent of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Misérables - can’t, and shouldn’t, be rushed. Bravo, Hayworth, but more consideration from the director here would have taken this solo to the next level.
All in all, this performance has it all - a stellar cast thanks to John Partridge and Anita Harris, an impeccable set, barely there consumes that transport you to a different era, and a great storyline.
In my opinion there is work still to do to maintain the emotional resonance throughout the performance - and to ensure each set packs the same punch that the Kit Kat Klub does - but I think what the performance at large lacks, the finale of the show certainly makes up for in spades.
The ending is an unexpected gut-punch, leaving you startled, shocked and sad all at once. The finale of this performance is a million miles from the spunky underground club we’ve learnt to love, but for me it couldn’t be more perfect. Throughout the play, the Kit Kat Klub has always been a suspension of reality, a place to go with no inhibitions and no repercussions (and where you don’t form too many emotional connections with the characters you meet). However, the ending seamlessly brought the Klub into the horrendous reality of the Nazi German regime. You finally see the characters as people rather than performers, vulnerable without the veneers of theatricality and sexuality to protect them. In the Klub they’re safe and secure, but in the real world, they don’t even have their names - they’re just a number.
The ending is a sublime metaphor for the far-reaching and all-encompassing grasp of the political party that changed history as we know it, and such a perfect (if heartbreakingly sad) place to draw the curtain.
As powerful, poetic and perfect as the ending was, I just wish the rest of the performance could have had a fraction of this introspective. Then, and only then, would this show have been perfect.
Reviewer: Hannah Wilde
Reviewed: 25th February 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★