Through fringed curtains, you can just about glimpse bodies writhing in scraps of leather or lace: the light is dim, the music is hectic, the colour scheme restricted to deep red and black. Director Rebecca Frecknall's stunning, semi-immersive production of Cabaret has turned the bar areas of Playhouse Theatre into as close as a West End theatre can get to a Berlin nightclub and it feels impressively grimy: the slightly nerve-wracking crush of people is like a relic from another century.
She packs her take on Cabaret full of edginess, queerness, and an immersive luxuriousness that's the perfect fit for a musical that relies so much on evoking the atmosphere of a very specific time period: the Weimar era in pre-war Germany, where sexual freedoms blossomed on the eve of the Nazi regime. It's an elegaic story, seen through the eyes of young writer Cliff Bradshaw (Omari Douglas, of 'It's a Sin' fame), who lodges in a boarding house alongside English runaway-turned-chanteuse Sally Bowles, and whose novelistic eye latches onto the glittering world of the Kit Kat Club.
Photograph: Marc Brenner
Eddie Redmayne plays the Kit Kat Club's Emcee like a scuttling creature from a damp basement somewhere, full of twitches and contorting limbs. It's a bit too much: his every move feels hyper-choreographed, giving his full body a workout when just a raised eyebrow would do. But although Redmayne might be the star draw here, this production is at its best when Jessie Buckley takes centre stage.
Sally Bowles is such an iconic role that she needs to be completely reimagined each time Cabaret is staged and that's exactly what Buckley does here. Instead of the archness and coquettishness of Liza Minnelli's Sally, there's something rawer. This Sally feels vulnerable from the start, not only after she falls pregnant and is trapped in uneasy domesticity. She's deeply emotional, shot through with a ravenous appetite for life that comes out in child-like roars when she sings. Her rendition of 'Life is a Cabaret' begins with a sulky reluctance: she's tired of performing for other people's pleasure. But then she gradually searches inside herself and finds something powerful: she sings it for herself, as a manifesto to live by, turning its lines into broken yells that announce her need to live outside convention.
Photograph: Marc Brenner
Going to Cabaret feels like being welcomed into a different universe with different rules and a lot of that is down to Tom Scutt's ingenious design. This is a semi-immersive production: which in practice means that there's a raucous pre-show cabaret, followed by a seated production that seems to stretch tendrils into every corner of the theatre. Seats cluster at the edges of a small round revolving stage that's constantly crammed with life and action, while the theatre's corners are decked with crinkled gold foil that suggests luxurious gilded decay, with abstract nude figures painted on the walls, with rich touches of velvet and fringing. It's intimate in every sense.
And Frecknall's staging doesn't have a scrap of prudishness to it. It's intensely sexual (although definitely not sexy): 'Two Ladies' is normally a polite, kitschy take on polyamory but here the song becomes a cacophony of obscenity. One performer uses a sink plunger to wittily simulate sex, others judder against each other in desperate convulsions. Photograph: Marc Brenner
The still heart at the centre of the mayhem is landlady Fräulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz's tender love story, built on shared glasses of schnapps and gifts of fruit. It's sweeter than ever here, with so much grit and bitterness around it.
But where some productions layer the Nazi iconography on thick, heavily highlighting the story's doomed pleasures with swastikas, this story's second act subsides into something different: a grey-suited conformity and dullness. It fades out softly, in a slightly underwhelming ending that does nothing to dim the memory of this staging's real standout moments: Buckley's career-defining performance, glitter in dim light, and the evocation of a queer underworld that feels present, seductive, and totally modern.
BY: ALICE SAVILLE