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BWW Review: CABARET, Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

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Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley star in a knockout musical revival

Cabaret

CabaretIt's the party at the end of the world - and it's the show of the year. Rebecca Frecknall's astonishing revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1966 musical, starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, is truly a revelation, as is the extensive revamp of the Playhouse Theatre. Enter the Kit Kat Club and you leave reality behind, gladly, until the lessons of history intrude with monstrous force.

The immersion into Weimar Berlin begins pre-show as you encounter various characters on your way into the auditorium. I won't spoil the specifics, but suffice to say that you get a good sense of hedonism, voyeurism and liberation, of music, gender-bending and transactional relationships right from the off. (The phenomenal design throughout is by Tom Scutt.) There's also irreverent new artwork that teases and provokes; even the walls are part of the act.

That extends to the audience, with the modified stalls now featuring small tables where you can order Champagne, enjoy a decadent meal, or pick up your landline phone to speak to a club entertainer. Beware the roving dancers though, who might slink past and steal your drink. It makes us totally complicit in what unfolds.

The Playhouse is almost unrecognisable: now in the round instead of proscenium arch, and with a capacity of 590 instead of 832. But what's really striking is how Frecknall makes every single creative choice within this intimate staging feel necessary. There's nothing extraneous in her production, which has minimal set and props. That means we pay attention to each one, like Sally Bowles' enormous suitcase when she commandeers Cliff's room, the fruit which forms the courtship of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, or the invasive copy of Mein Kampf.

In this coherent account of Joe Masteroff's book, there's also total fluidity between the Kit Kat Club and the boarding house. The club songs satisfyingly comment on the story - like "Money" sung when Cliff takes a well-paid smuggling job, or "Two Ladies" teasing the complex living situation he finds himself in, shacking up with Sally while lusting after men like dancer Bobby.

Conducting the action (sometimes literally) is Redmayne, who is making only his second West End musical appearance following a juvenile role in Oliver!. On this evidence, that's a crying shame. His performance is absolutely magnetic - and he has both the pipes and the moves to match.

Redmayne puts a fascinating new spin on the Emcee: less sexually aggressive, more a giddy, shape-shifting imp with elements of the broken doll or Charlie Chaplin clown about him. He twists his body into strange positions, delivers his comic patter with gentle self-mockery, delights in his scantily clad company, or, dressed in a Pierrot costume and tiny party hat, suddenly seems impossibly vulnerable. His "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" is both sonorously beautiful and spine-chilling.

Buckley, in striking contrast, is a fiery grafter of a Sally, who never stops talking or moving because stillness scares her. She pairs her mock-girlish ruffles in "Don't Tell Mama" with stomping boots, booms "Mein Herr" into a microphone while flaunting her bright-green fur, and turns the title number into a great guttural roar. Both she and the Emcee sport wigs: it's all play-acting.

Buckley makes the bickering with Cliff both bullying and co-dependent, undercut by careless narcissism, yet her "Maybe This Time" is a heart-stopping moment of emotional candour. With astonishing vocal control, she softens the number's climax, hitting the high notes in what almost sounds like a prayer. It's unforgettable.

We see her fierce survival instinct reflected in the subplot, too, as the superb Liza Sadovy takes us on Fraulein Schneider's journey from tentative romance through to grim realism. I've never before been so torn by "What Would You Do?", delivered by Sadovy as if on trial for her life - or her soul. And Stewart Clarke is terrifyingly effective as Ernst, our vivacious guide to Berlin whose political reveal goes off like a bomb.

They're judiciously balanced by the open-hearted characters: Elliot Levey's hopeful Herr Schultz, and particularly Omari Douglas's sweet, watchful, idealistic Cliff, as breakable as the story's symbolic glass bowl. It's his loss of innocence that forms the evening's great tragedy - along with that same loss for Germany, and for the audience, as darkness steals in and the score turns hard and menacing.

The skilful ensemble - which includes the wonderful Anna-Jane Casey doing double duty as a Kit Kat performer and providing biting humour as Fraulein Kost - delivers Julia Cheng's rich choreography with aplomb. It's a mix of styles, from jazz and contemporary to waacking, with angular freezes, chest pumps, swaying and shimmies - knowing and challenging. Isabella Byrd's exceptional lighting design creates eerie shadows, casts the characters in sudden shafts of light, or uses the lamps in the audience to draw us into the performance.

We are all part of the show and part of the delusion - sleepwalking while the Far Right rises to power, antisemitism rears its ugly head, and our leaders preach fascist populism. We came here to escape, but we emerge shattered. This is musical theatre at its absolute finest. A total knockout.

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May 2022

Read our interview with Anna-Jane Casey here

See more Cabaret pictures here

Photo credit: Marc Brenner


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