Cabaret Overview + Review

I stepped into the Winter Gardens* knowing only that Cabaret was set in 1930s Berlin, and despite that information, I assumed it would be your regular musical- upbeat songs, sharp dance routines, and a character overcoming a struggle.

Right from the start, I had an inkling that I would be wrong. Having studied Brecht at college, I recognised his style immediately. The costumes were minimal, the set industrial, and only minor changes were made to either throughout. Brecht's plays were intended to distance the audience and have them watch as critical observers rather than become emotionally drawn in, and the bare set reflected that. It also meant that the actors had nothing to hide behind and had to deliver bold, outrageous performances, which they certainly did.

a woman in black corset and top hat sings with her arms outstretched behind red glitter letters spelling out cabaret

Will Young took the role of Emcee, a character who switches between jolly and devious quicker than you can say 'cabaret'. The narrator of the show, Emcee is not a character you can trust or relate to, and Young played him perfectly. The subtlest of gestures or expressions would sharply divert him from one extreme to another, while his sweet singing voice during his solos added yet more contrast. It was very easy to see why Young had been nominated for an Olivier award for this role.

The other big name in the show was Louise Redknapp, who embodied the glamorous yet troubled Sally Bowles. My first impression was not good; I thought she was exaggerating her movements and speech, but on reflection I did see that she was channelling Brecht and using techniques to distance the audience from the character rather than believe and empathise. 

will young poses in a dinner suit as emcee in cabaretlouise redknapp poses in black underwear and top hat for cabaret
Photo credit: Jim Marks
We meet Sally, Emcee, and the world of cabaret through Clifford Bradshaw, portrayed by Charles Hagerty. As an outsider being thrown into Berlin at the deep end, we see Cliff start as a refined, sensible man determined to work on his novel, before he is led astray by the characters of cabaret. The first half of the show took us on a whirlwind of fun, with Cliff losing his inhibitions and indulging in everything Berlin has to offer, including a relationship with Sally Bowles, who was carrying his child. Meanwhile, his lonely, elderly landlady developed her own romance with Herr Schultz, a Jewish greengrocer who rents a room and harbours a quiet adoration for her. 

Following their adventures and antics, it was easy to believe that everything was rosy, and forget that the story was set in 1930s Berlin. The scene before the interval quickly shattered the illusion, with Emcee pulling the strings as the dancers performed a puppet dance in which they pointed guns at the audience and Emcee became Hitler. I saw the show soon after the Vegas shooting, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable watching the scene. Brecht wanted to portray messages that would encourage the audience to think about their own lives, and this was certainly achieved. Initially I felt fear, then angry when I realised that the themes are still relevant today, with terrorism, dictatorship, and even Nazis hitting our headlines regularly.

The scene certainly set the tone for the following half, where we saw the start of the end through the lives of the characters. Whereas most musicals depict romance prevailing over all, relationships broke down under pressure from the rising Nazi regime, with both Sally and Fraulein Schneider, the landlady, making the difficult choice to stay safe and alive rather than risk resisting. 

The dancers' spirits were broken, too. Throughout the performance, they had been full of vibrancy and life, sass and attitude, not just accessorising the main characters but commanding even more attention with the precision of their routines. The show culminated in a harrowing scene that truly illustrated how the Nazis stole all hope and joy, extinguished even the strongest and brightest fire. Silence fell and discomfort rippled against the audience. The Nazi leader knocked down heavy letters spelling out 'Kabaret', and the echo that rang around the room intensified the unease. The dancers stripped, turned to the back to become faceless, nothing, to the leader, and each one whispered 'shhhhh', symbolising the showers in the concentration camps, and, on a deeper level, the silencing of the millions killed under the regime. 

As I said, Brecht did not want the audience to become involved. The minimal props and theatrical effects should have made me observe, and the distancing effects such as the silence and juxtaposition were intended to distance me, but during those final moments I could not help but break down in tears. I left the theatre sobbing and totally shaken, furious that such events had truly unfolded, livid that their ghosts are stirring in the world today. It was one of the most powerful, effective pieces I have seen. It is incredible that this awkward, disjointed show and slippery characters came together to hit me so hard, and it was truly special to see Brechtian theatre done so perfectly.

*Winter Gardens Blackpool kindly supplied tickets in exchange for an honest review. See my disclaimer for more.



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