Rufus Norris’ Olivier Award-winning production of Kander & Ebb’s legendary musical is back in town, and if the prospect of Will Young in leather shorts, sexual debauchery and the chance to throw away your inhibitions won’t get you to the cabaret, nothing will.
This is a place where, if it weren’t for Britpop not making an entrance into history for another 60 years, a rendition of Blur’s Girls & Boys would not go amiss. Cabaret may only be set 10 years after Downton Abbey, but even the most rebellious Crawley sister would be moved to smelling salts by the risen hemlines, freely available drugs and sexual promiscuity positively encouraged. For this is Berlin and we’re in the infamous Kit Kat Club.
Here Sally Bowles rules the roost; an English wannabe star who has pledged to live in the fast lane and ignore the increasingly terrifying politics rapidly unfolding beyond the club’s fogged up windows. When dashing American writer Cliff Bradshaw walks into her life, she adopts him as her new pet, ambushing him into letting her live scandalously in his room at Fräulein Schneider’s lodgings – a hub of debauchery and creativity at odds with the landlady’s naive, blushing nature – and indulge a fantasy of a relationship where “open” wouldn’t even begin to describe its progressive nature.
Proceedings for the evening are presided over by the Emcee, a cackling, grotesque figure straight out of The League Of Gentlemen; a clown, compere and comedian rolled into one eccentric package. Between the show’s sporadic storyline portraying Cliff’s unwitting decent into Berlin’s dark underworld, his relationship with the flamboyant Sally and Fräulein Schneider’s own fated romance with the kind Herr Schultz, the Emcee provides short skits and interludes to truly welcome the audience into a cabaret. From an utterly disgusting fat-suited routine that takes the show’s surrealism to Dali levels to the hilarious but tragic If You Could See Her, these scenes prove to be the tightest of the production.
This can be put down to two factors. The first, that the majority of Norris’ production is a fittingly chaotic, anti-uniform experience, embracing angular, rough, almost brutal choreography and an in-your-face bum slapping, boob grabbing rawness required of this darkly sexy classic. The second is that, as the not-quite human Emcee, Young undoubtedly steals the show with his wholly physical transformation into the schizophrenic compere, both flirting with and grimacing sulkily at the audience. His German-accented voice impresses across the range of his numbers, from the rigidly traditional, patriotic and utterly terrifying Tomorrow Belongs To Me to the show’s devastatingly beautiful, melancholic conclusion I Don’t Care Much.
Also making her West End debut, Michelle Ryan proves herself to be an adept singer as the extravagantly over the top Sally, playing the role with all the jolly hockey stick naughtiness it requires and diving off ladders in all-singing, all-dancing numbers with Bowles-worthy abandon. Matt Rawle is also suitably dashing as Cliff, while Siân Phillips does Fraulein Schneider’s complex vulnerability and tough tenacity justice.
It is in the final moments of both acts of the show, however, when the production truly takes flight; the Emcee becoming puppeteer for a sinister dance that introduces the rise of Nazism with a theatrical punch before the interval and the show concluding with a devastating picture that will long stay with audiences. In these scenes it is Young who becomes the symbol of the show’s underlying brutality that bubbles away with increasing ferocity, providing both the terror and heartbreak that runs through the veins of this classic.