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Cabaret, starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley

Book by Joe Masteroff; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb
At the Kit Kat Club (Playhouse Theatre), London WC2N 5DE.
Until October 1, 2022 (new cast from March 21).

By Jarlath O'Connell
Published on December 12, 2021
kitkat.club/cabaret-london

Cabaret Eddie Redmayne (Emcee) and Jessie Buckley (Sally Bowles). PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

Every play/musical blends the era when it is set with the era in which it was created, and then it takes a great director to complete that triangle and make it about now. This is what Rebecca Frecknall has achieved here with this stunningly compelling reinvention of the Kander and Ebb classic.

The Playhouse Theatre in Embankment has been lavishly transformed. You enter this Kit Kat Club via a basement tunnel and work your way up narrow, dimly lit, stairs to emerge into a plush cabaret room lit from golden table lamps, where white aproned waiters serve champagne and canapés. The tiny in-the-round stage has a nifty revolve as well as a slim trapdoor through which various coup-de-théâtres explode throughout the evening.

Eddie Redmayne as the MC arrives like a saintly apparition. At first you think he's just too striking to be the side show, but he manages to make this part his own aided by some eye-catching costumes, from a skeleton of pearls to a jaunty Pierrot suit. The genius of the piece is that the MC has no dialogue or interaction with the others, yet he remains the soul of the story. He leads the club's musical numbers which function here like choral Odes in a Greek Tragedy.

Frecknall's return to the original stage version reminds us just how great Masteroff's book is, with its focus firmly on the psychological state of these characters. The outside world intrudes only via the older characters, the landlady Fraulein Schneider (Lisa Sadovy in great form) trying to preserve some gentility while being wooed into a September romance by the kindly Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz (Elliot Levey). Her number 'What Would You Do?' cuts like a knife. It quietly demolishes those idiotic "why didn't you leave?" arguments that are made about people in such a plight. The great Anna-Jane Casey has a scene stealer of a role too as her lodger Fraulein Kost, a hard working 'working girl' who also gives us as woozily romantic ballad 'Heiraten'.

Berlin of course was the place where oddballs, misfits or anyone with some spirit could flee, to escape a hell or just plain mediocrity and here the polymorphous perversity of it all is truly moving. All the characters yearn for escape or reinvention, which of course gives the piece its timeless emotional punch.

Designer Tom Scutt has fashioned a '20s Berlin which embodies the ideal of metropolitan living and the androgynous casting here is a perfect complement to this. His costumes are deliberately not chic, they're more dressing up cupboard or Art School student on a night out. They range from a perverted Shirley Temple to the forlorn washed-out suits worn at the finale, as if colour as well as possibility had drained from life. They echo those grotesque caricatures of the period by George Grosz.

Choreographer Julia Cheng has worked wonders to make us forget Fosse and Liza, great and all as they were. With her background more in contemporary dance Cheng brings a different movement language which contrasts with the usual Broadway slickness. Redmayne's feline physicality exemplifies it. For most of it he is stooped with that snivelling obsequiousness that Peter Lorre displayed. This guy is selling whatever you're buying.

The jerky movement and contorted spines are not pretty, yet totally alive to Kander's warm jazzy score which is laced with klezmer tones. Jennifer Whyte's arrangements and Nick Lidster's subtle sound design add further wondrous layers of atmosphere.

The mood can sway from wistful to terribly cacophonous such as in the frightening anthem 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me'. This is the only time when the musical world of the club and the real world coalesce, and the result is terrifying.

If Jessie Buckley wasn't so talented I'd call this the performance of a lifetime, but we know there is so much more to come from her. Steeped in music from a young age and with an incredible vocal range, the singing is no bother to her and every number is a stand out, but it's her intuitive intelligence as an actor that makes this show fly. With her cut-glass accent, this Sally is every gushing undergraduate arts student you ever met, a butterfly trapped in her dreams.

Omari Douglas supplies sterling support too as Cliff, the young American wannabee novelist, agape at Berlin's wonders, who is both perplexed and besotted by her. It is through his eyes we get drawn into her world.

The ending is daringly Brechtian with no emotional 'release' for the audience. When the MC enquires if your troubles are "Forgot?", it's not to cheer you on your way, but is uttered while holding a punter in an arm lock. There was no happy ending for this lot.

Cabaret Omari Douglas (Cliff) with Jessie Buckley (Sally Bowles) in Cabaret. PHOTO: MARC BRENNER

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