Review: Cabaret. Nottingham Theatre Royal (touring)

The 1951 Broadway play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten has gone down in theatre history for receiving the shortest ever review: namely “Me no Leica” penned by Walter Francis Kerr, an American critic for the New York Herald Tribune. The play was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s best selling 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin. I Am A Camera was actually fairly successful despite Kerr’s pithy criticism and it was made into a film. The title is a quote taken from the Isherwood novel’s first page. ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ The play ran for 214 performances and won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle award for best American play in 1952.

Fast forward to the musical drama Cabaret and the world of Broadway shows circa mid 1960s. Historically, the rights to Isherwood’s book had been acquired by Harold Prince with the intention of adapting the book into a musical. Joe Masteroff did the adaptation working alongside lyric and music writers John Kander and Fred Ebb. They researched the period and were influenced by the works of Kurt Weill thus producing a distinctive version of German cabaret music made suitable for Broadway musical theatre lovers’ ears. Completing the connection rather smartly, Kurt Weill’s widow, Austrian actress Lotte Lenya, played the very first Fräulein Schneider.

The material for the show was freely adapted to centre on the licentiously seedy Kit Kat Klub and the lives of its patrons and performers. All of this was conducted in the dark shadow of the encroaching Nazi regime. Cabaret has won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Musical Revival amongst other accolades. The original production was directed by the late Harold Prince and choreographed by Ron Field. Joel Grey was the first stage Emcee and Sally Bowles was played by English actress Jill Haworth. The Cabaret musical premiered in the West End on February 28th 1966 with Judy Dench as Sally Bowles, Barry Dennen as the Emcee and Peter Sallis as Herr Schultz. It ran for 336 performances.

For the 1972 film version Kander and Ebb created some new songs and the volatile but talented American creative Bob Fosse was brought in as a choreographer. They needed someone with a ‘dark flair’ to give the Kit Kat Klub scenes a very distinctive filmic edge. Cabaret has had many subsequent performances around the world, both professional and amateur, and at the Nottingham Theatre Royal 10-14 September we currently have the privilege to witness a radical touring production directed by National Theatre Artistic Director, Rufus Norris.

This touring show stars John Partridge (Emcee), Kara Lily Hayworth (Sally Bowles), and Anita Harris ( Fräulein Schneider). Other key members of the cast are Charles Hagerty (Cliff Bradshaw), James Patterson (Herr Schultz), Nick Tizzard (Ernst Ludwig) and Basienka Blake ( Fräulein Kost). The show also boasts another eleven brilliantly energetic and gymnastic ensemble players.

The stunningly effective and fluid design for this touring production is by Katrina Lindsay. The show is masterfully choreographed by the Venezuelan, director, designer, choreographer, and award winning Javier De Frutos. There are many elements to this present touring work of musical theatre but De Frutos’ choreographic input is totally mesmerising and genuinely avant garde. Tim Oliver’s creative lighting is just spectacular creating drama and visual subtlety throughout. The whole show comes over as fresh and bold. We start off by seeing this world on stage through the ‘camera with its shutter open’ but later on there are true shocks which make the audience gasp and unlike in the opening line in the novel we cannot, as onlookers, remain ‘… quite passive, recording, not thinking’. This show is one that will remain with you for a long time and this reviewer can envisage audience members booking to see it a second time this week. This press night the Nottingham Theatre Royal audience give it a massively enthusiastic. pretty much instant. standing ovation at the end.

John Partridge’s Emcee blows this rapt audience away with his initially odd but fun character that gradually becomes a laughing sneering embodiment of evil as the Emcee comments on stories unfolding through action, dance and song. He is a human puppet holding the political strings of 1930s Germany’s destiny and at one point throughout The Money Song he looks the perfect subhuman embodiment of one of George Grosz’s Dada caricatures connected to corporate, personal and political greed. A new song has been introduced to this touring production of Cabaret which is I Don’t Care Much. It is done in a very subtle male Dietrich way by John Partridge and adds a fantastic moody atmosphere to the scene following Fräulein Schneider’s powerful swan song What Would You Do? Partridge is absolutely the very best Emcee we have ever seen and heard and the If You Could See Her song is pure aural and visual cruelty exemplified. It is satirically inventive which leaves this audience extremely unsure whether to laugh. This is theatrical manipulation at its very best.

Kara Lily Hayworth excels as a Sally Bowles. She is written and portrayed as a politically naïve social opportunist who is constantly looking to exploit her flirty English girl charms and gain some dubious notoriety as a key performer in the Kit Kat Klub. Sally Bowles is quasi sympathetic and her vulnerabilities are what make one care. Hayworth’s voice for both speaking and singing is ‘perfectly marvellous’. She’s quite earthy and less plummy than others in the same role. We really like the way that the director Rufus Norris stages the Don’t Tell Mama song at a distance from a backstage vantage point. Hayworth’s on stage relationship works exceptionally well with the excellent and totally believable Charles Hagerty as Cliff Bradshaw. Her renditions of Mein Herr, Maybe This Time and the title song Cabaret are complete winners, as is Hagerty’s soulful Why Should I Wake Up?

Anita Harris ( Fräulein Schneider) with James Patterson (Herr Schultz) are beautifully paired as a would be romantic older couple for whom we know fate won’t be at all kind regarding the anti-Semitic culture of the emerging Nazi party and their culture of total intolerance and violence towards those of the Jewish faith. Their songs, It Couldn’t Please Me More and Married are tenderly done and the audience are really sympathetic about their outcomes. Dodgy dealing money laundering pro Nazi character and faux charmer Ernst Ludwig is well actualised by Nick Tizzard. This audience really love Basienka Blake’s Fräulein Kost and her sailor ‘friends’ but the tide of sympathy certainly turns away from her as she enthusiastically solos the virtual Nazi anthem – Tomorrow Belongs To Me. A lovely believable performance from Blake.

Quintessentially, this brilliant touring production of Cabaret totally revitalises what could just be another durchschnittlich (average) production of Cabaret and really ramps up the presentation and styling, subverting the audience expectations big time, links, rechts und mittig without one falsch move. If you think you have seen Cabaret the musical before, go and see this and you will be blown away by its style, innovation and top class phenomenal performances from the whole cast and MD Phil Cornwell’s live orchestra.

Cabaret runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Sat 14th Sept

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