“Someday all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” But Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin has never been fully fixed; it is developing still, print after print, a continuing chemical process. John van Druten’s play would beget Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Isherwood himself would refocus his lens and revisit the material in the even more candid Christopher and His Kind, written in 1976 and making explicit that at which he could once only hint.
The recent BBC adaptation of His Kind featured Matt Smith as the author, engaged in sweaty bedroom sessions with the boys of Berlin. Though Isherwood’s sexuality remains clouded in Van Druten’s play, even so it’s difficult not to make a connection with this particular lensing when watching Anthony Lau’s revival of I am a Camera: for Harry Melling’s incarnation of Isherwood has more than a dash of the Doctor about him; he’s a nervy but observant outsider, the odd man out, always slightly removed.
The bond between Melling’s Christopher and Rebecca Humphries’s spirited Sally Bowles is an intense and consuming one. They are wrapped in each other, like children, like siblings, flaring in rage one moment, earnestly proposing marriage the next when the other is in a bind. While Isherwood is tolerant of the many unsuitable men she drags into their world – the coolly overgenerous Clive amongst them, with his promises of exotic travel and his frequent gifts of Champagne – the play is unbalanced in this respect; his love-life remains opaque, while her failings are continually picked over. As Isherwood, Melling has a kind of geeky grace, a pleasing precision of gesture, while Humphries’ Sally conveys a deep streak of pathos and self-knowledge below the feathers and glitter and nail varnish. Though mannered and bratty, she’s a striking presence, even at her most dishevelled and regretful.
The playground heat of their friendship is contrasted with the slow-blooming relationship between Isherwood’s uptight Jewish student Natalia and Fritz, Isherwood’s essentially amiable if slightly predatory hanger-on. Fritz initially pursues Natalia on a whim, his eyes lighting up when he discovers she comes from a wealthy family, but her decency and strength of character wake something up in him and he finds himself falling in love. There’s an interesting process of doubling at work here: as Isherwood’s sexuality remains unspoken, Fritz is also revealed to be concealing his Jewishness, sealing it away so deeply inside himself he struggles to admit it even to Natalia. It’s testament to both Freddie Capper and Sophie Dickson that neither gets gusted off the stage by Melling and Humphries’ altogether larger performances.
Eventually even the pathologically passive Herr Issyvoo can no longer hide from the reality of what’s happening in the city, the storm clouds forming beyond his shabby rented room and the claustrophobia of his relationship with Sally. Reality starts to encroach on both their lives; for Isherwood the growing wave of violence and hate becomes unbearable, while Sally’s fire fades when her mother arrives in town to put an end to her adventuring.
In the last few productions in their current home, Southwark Playhouse has made increasingly creative use of their Vault space and James Turner’s set is no exception. Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house – with its much abused bed and velvet chaise lounge, its faded drapings and decaying paperbacks, that all-important tooth-glass from which to sip one’s gin – feels perfectly at home under the arched stone ceiling, a little bit bohemian and subterranean in more ways than one, cut off from the outside world. The bassist and pianist perched on a dais at the back of the stage conjures up a whiff of the Weimar clubs in which Sally Bowles might have wafted her emerald-tipped fingernails, beckoning at men through a cigarette haze.