On the Rocks: Cabaret review

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Cabaret
Dir. Taryn O’Connor
Prod. Caroline Christie
***

Just So’s On the Rocks offering this year was Cabaret, a musical set in a seedy nightclub in 1930s Berlin. While life may be ‘a cabaret, old chum’, none of the characters could escape the rise of the Nazi party, and one of Cabaret’s strongest assets is that it did not shy away from the brutal march of history.

Guided by the captivating Master of Ceremonies (Sebastian Carrington-Howell, charismatic and compelling as he narrated the dark underworld of 1930s Berlin), the audience was introduced to the sordid world of the club, with the Kit Kat Club showgirls in negligees, topless men in braces, and rumours of political change in the air. Yet as Sally Bowles (Emma Taylor), a struggling showgirl declares, politics don’t belong in the Kit Kat Club. The Club is an escape from all that, and Clifford Bradshaw (Tommy Rowe), an American writer who can’t seem to finish anything, is quickly drawn into the shabby, debauched world of the club.

The set design helped to create the run-down nature of the club, with smoke machines, cabaret tables, and a neon sign in the background spelling out ‘Kit Kat Club’, which slowly became swastikas as the play took a darker turn. One of the most effective moments of this flip in mood came with the character of Herr Ludwig, played with commitment and good humour by David Patterson. Ludwig is the first person that Cliff meets upon arriving in Berlin, and provides great comic relief throughout the first act, until his entrance in the final scene of act one, where he took off his coat to reveal a Nazi armband. Further to this shock, the delicious twist that rounded off the first act caused people in my section of the audience to gasp.

The darkness of the show was where Cabaret shone, but there were certain aspects that could have used more work. There was a problem with sound throughout – though I was close enough to the stage to see what had to have been the world’s most terrified spider scurry across the stage at one point, I had trouble hearing some characters over the onstage band (beautifully conducted by Frazer Hadfield, with incredible musical direction by Jack McMillan) due to problems with the microphones. There was also a bizarre lack of props in some scenes. Notably, Sally keeps suggesting that she and Cliff drink gin, though in most scenes they mimed their drinks, in one scene they had glasses and not in any other ones. I don’t have a problem with making the choice to not have props, just as long as it’s consistent throughout the show. Either there should have been props in all the scenes, or they all should have been mimed. Tech was very well done, due to technical directors Caroline Christie and Tom Morrell’s expertise, and the constant smoke machines kept the atmosphere of the club going throughout.

The ensemble cast was uniformly excellent and the lead characters were also strong, with Ayanna Coleman and Mark Gregory as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz providing a heart-breaking love story. I did have a problem with the love story of Sally and Cliff at points however, as I was unsure of their relationship for most of the play. Though they’re set up as the romantic leads in the show, I found the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Shultz to be much more of a truthful romance, as I was unsure from scene to scene whether Sally and Cliff actually liked each other, which I would put down to a problem in direction.

There was no happy ending to Cabaret, which is exactly what it deserved, dealing with heavy themes as it did. Occasionally dismissed as trivial, musical theatre has just as much power to evince powerful emotional reactions and it’s a credit to this production that it did not shy away from the darker themes of the play.

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