At the climax of Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Cabaret there is a magic act: Jessie Buckley’s Sally Bowles is made to entirely disappear.
Dressed in the same heavy suit as every cast member now, as the Nazi regime begins to exert itself with full grimness over the citizens of nineteen-thirty-bad Berlin, Buckley delivers the title number as if a marionette. Manipulated and emptied, she sings it like a broken plaything, well past its use.
This direction – replacing the doomed, tacky glamour of the Kit Kat Club and the city, and Sally’s choice in staying there with grey, with the absence of character – gets the point across. Things have changed and there’s little hope. But the too-smooth overhaul feels glib, unconcerned with the detail of who Sally is and her impossible idea of things as they were, trapping her there, and the overlaps and differences between her and those with even fewer resources. That’s the cost of not letting us see Sally delusionally, gloriously attempting to put on a show, without even her own clothes. As her agency is excised, so is Sally, and so is much of Cabaret’s complicated, glittering mess, fifty-five years after its original Broadway production.
Frecknall’s production, advertised as immersing its audience within the Kit Kat Club itself, is impeccably tasteful. Tom Scutt’s design shies away from a strictly period feel: the in-the-round setting is dusky-toned, romantic and direct. Sally’s fur coat is a mint faux, there’s lots of lace, the costumes are to die for. But the glossiness doesn’t afford much purchase. It’s not just the West End of it all: it lacks a sense of grime, and it’s hard to imagine the relative dinginess of the Kit Kat Club.
Buckley could do the ironic screwball comedy and belting tragedy of Sally Bowles in her sleep. The disturbing sexy baby tone of ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ is exaggerated with Bo Peep frills and clumpy tomboyish boots; her face is painted white until things start to go wrong, then it’s an abrupt design (and acting) about-face to stripped down and “no makeup”. It’s only she isn’t trusted with a less straightforward performance as her arc is drawn, nor with being more present, along with Omari Douglas’ Cliff. As ‘Cabaret’ is robbed from her, Buckley’s high point is ‘Maybe This Time’, delivered simply, looking at Douglas with her arms crossed, and it’s all that’s needed.
The subplots of Cabaret as a stage musical are radically different from those of the 1972 film, at the expense of Cliff’s character. The narrative outside of the songs is very spare, while the film packs out the central relationship with scenes of a smitten giddiness. Sally and Cliff are the kind of confused, codependent young (t4t, queer) catastrophes where it doesn’t really matter what the starting sexuality is. Of course they love each other, of course they both want a baby and don’t, and of course it doesn’t work at all.
Douglas’ Cliff is unambiguously gay, an upright nerd, with a sweet and underutilised voice. But Sally and the Emcee’s matching red hair (and dewigging moments!) is a signifier belying this production’s real loyalty, and its disinterest in Cliff and Sally as twin flames. It doesn’t really matter how explicitly or implicitly a production chooses to play Cliff’s sexuality as Christopher Isherwood stand-in, camera with his shutter blushingly open or not. Here, he’s not afforded the kind of darkness which might electrify the push and pull between him and Sally and the club and Berlin. It makes the eventual tearing away from each other feel pat.
Befitting the disappearing act, it’s clear that Eddie Redmayne is playing his Emcee as sinister clown even before his immaculate red Pierrot costume. He’s the crooked spine of the production (Redmayne habitually hunches over, but straightens up frequently enough to let us know he’s not going for a character with a disability, just one who likes to hunch). This feels like a result both of Redmayne’s early attachment to this project and, irresistibly, of the long shadow of Sam Mendes’ oft-revived 1993 production, with Alan Cumming’s angrogynous arch orchestrator of events.
Redmayne’s performance is more like Joel Grey’s original Broadway Emcee in his sexlessness than Cumming’s little squirmer, but without the camp of either, even when it comes to ‘Money’. It’s chewy and grimacing and unchallenging, with a lot of very literal conducting. The angle seems to be consciously playing on the actor’s age-resistant, slightly haunted doll looks, but feels unsettled rather than unsettling. I don’t think an Emcee who doesn’t read as particularly faggy does much for Cabaret, even with the character’s role embodying of the changing spirit of Berlin. Not when it all feels more circus or “freakshow”-themed than seedy dive. Why set it in the club at all?
As Fraulein Schneider, Sally and Cliff’s landlady, and Herr Schultz, her Jewish love interest, Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey are almost too adorable, then nothing but painful. Nazi-supporting Ernst (Stewart Clarke) is very malicious from the outset. Julia Cheng’s choreography is gorgeously sinuous, allowing the Kit Kat Club girls and boys to flow in and out of (appealingly) lewd positions around the Emcee, and her background in hip-hop and waacking is most apparent in Redmayne’s contortions.
The actors approach the tables of the highest-paying audience members, and though it feels exciting when the telephones on the tables glowingly coordinate with Isabella Byrd’s lighting, there’s nothing to hear when you pick up the receiver (unless you’re one of the few whose phones ring during the interval – a bit stratified rather than vivaciously decadent). I can’t help but dig the cutely-obscene murals by Dominic Myatt in the Gold Bar, but wouldn’t a truly immersive experience feel more sordid, more textured? The Prologue dancers, in their unobjectionable neutral tone laces, have little to do, watched by the crush of a filing-in audience.
Again, it’s the safe, money (money money money) -making tastefulness of it all. It’s death by tasteful. The lack of specificity and dirt across setting, style, even characterisations – how clean and unimpeachable it seems – divorces this production from any muttered aims of political pertinence, or potential for eliciting awareness of current rising fascism and its attendant persecutions of and increased violence against Jewish, gay and trans people all over Europe. If it’s just meant to be a rollicking good time, why does it feel so staid?
At the peak of ‘Cabaret’, that all-defying “START BY ADMITTING FROM CRADLE TO TOMB ISN’T THAT LONG A STAY-”, Buckley throws her arms about the stage as if she’s being violently pulled. At this point, the movements are so extreme that it’s hard to make out what she’s saying.
But this hardly matters – the production isn’t interested in the words, or in her. It’s about the spectacle, but not the spectacle of Sally Bowles. It’s all frightfully impressive, but there’s no-one there.
Cabaret is currently playing Playhouse Theatre until May 2022. More info and tickets here.