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Venue: New Theatre, Oxford

Cabaret
5.0Reviewer's rating

I encourage you to see this production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which presents the show pretty much as originally intended. When the show was first produced on Broadway it was considered shocking in ways that would probably now seem tame. This production puts the darkness and lurid eroticism back into the tale, interpreting the material with greater darkness than was in the film. It is also, of course, following more closely the script and score of the original show. The movie dropped several songs and also had a new subplot about younger lovers whose lives are disrupted by the rise of the Nazis to power.

This production restores the original tale of the love of the elderly Herr Schultz, a gentle and rather naïve and innocent Jewish man, for Fraulein Schneider, the landlady of the lodgings where our main characters live. This part was originally written for Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weill, and a great cabaret star of the very era in which the show is set. Fraulein Schneider is a woman from a genteel background who has fallen on harder times and been through the turbulent years of World War I and the mad inflation and chaos of the 1920s. Anita Harris and James Paterson embody Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz with a touching perfection and add important levels of both entertainment and pathos to the evening. Their acting is completely engaging and convincing. Also, of course, they get to perform their songs. So What?, It Couldn’t Please Me More and Married are restored to their rightful places and are very worth hearing, especially as performed by these two.

The central role in the film, of course, was Sally Bowles – and Kara Lily Hayworth does an extremely fine job. She is a fine, subtle actress and has a terrific voice. She has a lovely gamine quality that is dramatically cogent for making Sally Bowles attractive despite turning out to be something of a selfish monster. Her voice is clear and musical in ways that remind a bit of Barbra Streisand. She also acts her songs with real variety and intelligence. But this production by director Rufus Norris somewhat re-interprets the show so that the themes of cowardice, fellow-travelling and betrayals are much more strongly emphasized in this portrayal of Sally. Charles Hagerty makes an appealing, believable Cliff Bradshaw, able to convey convincingly his initial attraction to the louche and vivid life of 1930s Berlin and then the slow growth of his disillusionment and anger. His love and commitment to Sally are also clear, as is his bisexuality.

However, in this production Norris has made the centre of the show the Emcee, powerfully portrayed by a multi-talented John Partridge with edgy vitality. He manages to convey both the attractiveness and the lurking evil of the character and makes the Emcee symbolic of the deviance and betrayals that sum up the politics against which the story is told, with an ending as interpreted by Norris that twists the knife further to show the supporters of betrayal betrayed.

The show is not only darker than ever but that darkness seems to make it more terrifyingly relevant to our world today and at the end of the show, after a moment of shocked silence, the audience rose to its feet to applaud.

The musical elements of the show are extremely fine and much praise must be lavished on the band led by Phil Cornwell. The design by Katrina Lindsay is a suitable backdrop for the almost Brechtian approach to the material, the Lighting design by Tim Oliver adds real character to the visual aspects of the show and the choreography by Javier de Frutos is never less than riveting to watch. Having the band on stage for all the cabaret sections is a real bonus. This is a vital and memorable evening in the theatre.

However, what I took away most centrally is that in the end, John Partridge has to be praised for his non-stop energy, his multi-faceted performance and the conviction he puts into his own fascinating creation. His acting, singing and dancing are all memorable and precise; and he seems to embody the decadence of 1930s Berlin and the slide into totalitarian savagery in one person.

It is also a very sexy show; so don’t take the children even though it is a musical. But if this tour comes near you, it is definitely worth seeing.

  • Musical
  • Book by Joe Masteroff
  • Lyrics by Fred Ebb
  • Music by John Kander
  • Director Rufus Norris
  • Musical Diretor Phil Cornwell
  • Cast includes: John Partridge, Kara Lily Hayworth, Anita Harris, Charles Hagerty, James Peterson, Nick TIzzard
  • Venue: New Theatre, Oxford
  • Until Saturdy 8 February, then touring until 25 April 2020

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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