To Stefan Zweig, writing in his rambunctious The World of Yesterday, ‘Even the Rome of Suetonius had never known such orgies as the pervert balls of Berlin, where hundreds of men costumed as women and hundreds of women as men danced under the benevolent eyes of the police.’ It was a world where traditional categories and boundaries, between class, gender, sexuality and politics, collapsed in on one another in a hedonistic madness where ‘To be sixteen and still under suspicion of virginity would have been considered a disgrace in any school of Berlin.’ That is the dusky environment of halbwelt, a world that director Patrick Kennedy hopes to plunge us to in this evening of punchy, politically-savvy Weimar cabaret.
Originally a one-woman performance that told the story of seven of the period’s greatest sheroes, this is a full-cast production that glides through a roster of classic cabaret tunes intercut with all-too-slight narrative vignettes. The cast is sparkling, the band is satin smooth and the songs consistently impressive, but for some reason the evening never quite crackles into life and the halbwelt atmosphere fails to coalesce.
The fourteen foot-stomping and tear-jerking tunes that make up the score are contextualised through the life of one of the seven stars. We see Claire Waldoff’s relationship with Olga von Roeder flourish in the liberal glow of the party scene and teeter on the brink of the looming fascist crackdown; we’re serenaded by Marlene Dietrich and Anita Barber performs her infamous cocaine dance, ‘Morphium’ by Mischa Spoliansky.
From the chorus opening number ‘Chuck Out the Men’ the focus is defiantly feminist, with the Weimar period celebrated as a time of paradoxical liberation for the performers, despite the salacious content of their acts. Like Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Halbwelt Kultur plays the anything-goes world of the Weimar Republic squarely off against the grim and intolerant future that’s goose-stepping towards Germany. Through Alyssa Noble’s witty, often rather acid choreography, we’re never under any illusion that the good times of sexual freedom and shadowy lawless zones is about to fall beneath a jackboot.
The occasional flat note or fluffled dance-step merely adds to the evening’s rickety charm, and the cast is generally excellent. Gabrielle Schmidt brings a moving but understated pathos to Waldoff, and Sarah Bradnum’s turn as Dietrich is a clear highlight. The full-chorus numbers are the most rousing, and smaller set-pieces such as ‘Supply and Demand’ work beautifully. Another Spoliansky number, ‘Lavender Song’ becomes a bittersweet anthem for lesbian love under the threat of returning oppression.
There are sections that are less successful, however: the presentation of ‘Morphium’ lacks necessary contextualisation and juts out awkwardly and inexplicably, and things begin to drag before the show concludes. The script, by Finn D’Albert, barely has time to breathe, meaning that the exchanges that bookend musical routines often come off as rather half-baked. The meeting of Waldorf and Roeder in particular rings like a sub-par Sarah Walters clone, and hence lacks vital credibility.
It’s a real shame, as Halbwelt Kultur is scattered with gems and, at its best, is a sex-positive celebration of freedom and the power of performance to speak love’s name when all other avenues have been blocked. It’s also an unfortunate truth that, however pleasant, the Jermyn Street Theatre is about as un-Halbwelt as London venues get, and it’s difficult to feel fully engaged by the performers in such a polite black box studio. Put this promising show in a grimy cabaret bar or a gin-sodden music hall, let the wine flow freely and the performers spill out through the audience, and Halbwelt Kultur could become something truly Weimarkable.