When the revival (of the revival) of Cabaret opened in New York back in 2014, Studio 54 felt like the ideal venue to become home to the KitKat Club, and now that a brand new production has opened in London, it is The Playhouse Theatre’s turn to be transformed into that infamous den of iniquity.
The stage is relocated to the centre of the theatre and is surrounded by small tables; you can book a ticket that includes a pre-show meal and use the telephone on your table to take phone calls from the prologue company who entertain the audiences ahead of curtain up, though be aware an experience like this is pricey.
Those choosing the more traditional stalls seating will also enjoy a cabaret bar style setting, with a small ledge acting as a table, and all patrons get to enjoy the ambiance of the club before the show begins, again with the excellent prologue company providing various forms of entertainment.
All of this is important because it sets the tone before before the show even begins. With the Playhouse Theatre’s windows covered up, it genuinely feels like ‘in here, life is beautiful’ and we can all, for the first time in a while, really leave our troubles outside.
A few weeks back, I asked a couple on the tube what show they were going to see, “Eddie Redmayne” they replied enthusiastically. The fact that they didn’t say Cabaret probably sums up what has driven advance ticket sales; this particular star casting has been a big draw for audiences from all walks of life.
As the Emcee, Redmayne gives the performance of the year, playing the role differently to notable predecessors; less evil than Joel Grey and less lascivious than Alan Cumming. Redmayne initially comes across as a more caring and compassionate Emcee, almost a reassuring presence, which in itself is disconcerting given what the character is supposed to represent. This changes in the second act when everything becomes much more sinister, but where Redmayne really excels is in the way he conveys sadness, you can see it quite literally in his eyes, and the audience can’t take their eyes off of him.
That initial softer angle seems to permeate through the whole production, the ending is less graphically devastating than previous versions, although those familiar with the production may find it even more chilling, and it does give Tom Scutt one final opportunity to surprise us with another set of sumptuous costumes.
This does make the side plot of Frauline Schneider and Herr Schultz more dominant, and that’s potentially down to Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey’s excellent interpretations of the characters, and the way the production tackles and highlights the atrocities that Jewish people faced under the Nazi’s.
Redmayne is not really the star of the show though, Jessie Buckley gives Sally Bowles this wonderful brash confidence, with just a hint of the vulnerability shining through. Buckley’s vocal performance is worth the ticket price alone, and when Sally and Cliff (Omari Douglas) come together, there’s some sort of magic happening on that stage. Buckley, performing the title number, does so with such passion it’s almost overwhelming, a venerable masterclass of musical theatre. Also notable is Stewart Clarke as Ernst Ludwig, the nuanced performance may go unnoticed for all the other big names on stage, but Clarke has perfected the role.
Rebecca Frecknall’s version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is probably one of the best productions to open in the West End in the last ten years, for the simple reason that it’s so much more than a musical, it’s an immersive experience that audiences, who are lucky enough to get a ticket, will be talking about for years to come. Life may be disappointing, but Cabaret is most definitely not.
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