Fresh from breaking the record for the most amount of Olivier Awards ever won by a revival, Cabaret strides confidently forwards with an excellent new cast
This new revival of Cabaret had West End critics fighting to publish their five star reviews first when it first opened in November 2021. Seeing homegrown A-List talent Eddie Redmayne as brightly-dressed, enigmatic oddball Emcee became the hottest ticket in town.
The production cleaned up at the Olivier Awards this month, where it took home seven gongs, including Best Director, and Best Actor and Best Actress in a Musical. Last month, Redmayne and co-star Jessie Buckley exited stage left though, bringing an end to the production’s Hollywood line-up. But the new cast of Cabaret prove that this show doesn’t need star power to offer a glittering night of theatre.
We’re in Berlin in the 1920s where a bunch of misfits are connected by how they hustle for work in and around the famous Kit Kat cabaret club. Based on real figures, we meet Clifford Bradshaw, an expat writer from America, and Sally Bowles, a singer who’s escaped a stifling middle class London life where she feels she can’t be herself.
They both shack up at Fraulein Schneider’s guest house. She’s a local with a heart of gold who falls for a loveable fruit seller who provides sublime comic interludes and some of the gutsiest acting. Prowling amidst all this in a series of awe-inspiring outfits is Emcee, the compere at the cabaret club who remains an alluring but distant figure throughout.
It’s based on the 1950s play by John van Druten and stories from the 1920s, originally written by Christopher Isherwood, who, living in Berlin at the time, described the era as “a period of ecstasy, sentimentality, worry, hope and clock-watching.” Much like an actual cabaret club, Cabaret hinges on individual characters doing mesmersingly weird things, all in an unbelievably ornate West End environment (more on that later).
The new cast are excellent. Fra Fee from Disney’s Hawkeye doesn’t look a million miles from Eddie Redmayne as the new Emcee, and has a similar softness of movement as the Hollywood star. Emcee is an unnerving presence, and Fee exploits dainty footwork with overemphasised body movements to bring out the enigmatic clownishness of the character. This role suits a lesser-known actor anyway: with the character disguised in over-the-top outfits, if you actually wanted to ‘see’ Redmayne, or any star, you’d be better off waiting for them to take up a role in a more stripped-back show.
Director Rebecca Frecknall explodes the already eccentric world inside the Kit Kat club by leaning into the elements of visual fantasy. The famous choreographed dance scene with Emcee and a gorilla during the song If You Could See Her in the second act involves an animal which looks so real it is frightening – this creative production pulls off ideas which seem extreme on paper but feel acceptable within the escapist world of the Kit Kat club.
The Playhouse Theatre has literally been turned into the Kit Kat club, with a stage in-the-round, and the theatre has been adorned with fussy 1920s details. (For £250, audiences can sit in the actual cabaret club area; there’s also the option of adding a three-course meal and bottle of champagne to be served to your seat.)
The creative team have made this 786-seat West End theatre actually feel like an intimate cabaret venue. There are big ensemble numbers, where the cast swell backwards and forwards on the tiny stage, making it feel expansive, but they are in the minority. More common are the paired back character study songs, such as the hilarious Fruit Shop Dance, in which Herr Schultz, played with bucket loads of heart by original cast member Elliot Levey, gets fruity with Fraulein by offering her the gift of a pineapple. The sultry Don’t Tell Mama fizzes with protest and the titular Cabaret – made famous by Liza Minneli – is an astonishing final showdown performed by Emily Benjamin the night I went, a member of the ensemble standing in for newcomer Amy Lennox.
You might book to hear this one track – a bittersweet ode to the lives of the people who struggled through Berlin when Nazi sentiment was beginning to stir – but the production’s immersive quality is so strong that by the time it’s sung it becomes just another startling moment in the story of the Kit Kat club. If only London had an actual cabaret club like this.