CABARET Rufus Norris's imaginative casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as the decadent Sally Bowles
“The Kit Kat Club. Telephones on every table. Girls call you. Boys call you.You call them.”
Note: With the announcement of Rebecca Frecknall to direct Eddie Redmayne as Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles this winter I recalled the last London Kit Kat Club
Rufus Norris brings his directorial talents to Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret. This is such an intelligent production that I came away with unforgettable and intense visual images that will stay with me. What we have to remember is that the much loved film of Cabaret was Fosse’s reworking of the stage musical and that the iconic Lisa Minelli may not have been what was intended by Christopher Isherwood when he wrote about the nightclub performer Sally Bowles. So before you see this new production, try to temporarily erase memories of Minelli in the movie.
What Rufus Norris gives us is a picture of a seamy, sordid and sleazy nightclub in 1930s Berlin where no one cares about anyone else and where in decadence, Fascism is allowed to flourish. James Dreyfus, blacked up around his mouth and eyes, is the Emcee, a world weary sleazeball, less perky and witty than Joel Grey, and absolutely compelling as a jaded performer. He also pops up as the railway ticket seller in a perfectly bored public servant role.
The support cast for the Kit Kat Club is magnificent, dancers all of whom can gyrate and pose provocatively, squatting, knees apart in Javier de Frutos’s imaginative reworking of Fosse’s great choreography. In a design coup, with a nod to Rocky Horror, Katrina Lindsay dresses the Kit Kat men (and girls) in tuxedos and black fishnets with suspenders. They are wearing Rif Raf’s makeup and Frank ‘n’ Furter’s clothes. It is very, very racy.
If there is a problem with this wonderful production, it rests with the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Sally Bowles. As Sally, Martin is a fresh faced suburban girl but talk about her career as a nightclub singer is laughable because of her obvious lack of singing talent. I cannot believe that Rufus Norris did not do this intentionally. Sally Bowles is shallow and selfish but where do you go with a West End musical where the lead has a weak singing voice and is ineffectual and dislikeable? It isn’t what we were expecting and we may not be ready for it. Whatever the intention, the result is that we are seeing onstage someone who is more like the Sally, Christopher Isherwood intended us to see. Sally is a mess: she is manipulative, takes drugs and drinks too much, she is sexually promiscuous, selfish and totally lacking in any self-awareness. I have Megan Hinds to thank for the following extract about the real person behind Sally Bowles in Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin.
“The character of Sally Bowles was modeled after nightclub singer Jean Ross, who starred in a stage production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. The play tells the tale of a Venetian courtesan, and Ross bragged that she not only simulated sex onstage, she actually carried out the acts in full view of the audience. Isherwood reportedly attended several shows with binoculars in tow to witness Ross’ onstage escapades, but was never able to prove her claims. Ross and Isherwood were romantically linked for some time, but never married. Ross died in 1973.”
I find it difficult to equate Maxwell Martin’s fresh Sunday School teacher looks (or those of Detective Chief Superintendant Patricia Carmichael 2021) with the sleazy Bowles. Her opening number as a nun in a white backless habit seems misjudged. Her blonde, waved perm is also a shock.
Sheila Hancock comes into her own as the landlady Fraulein Schneider and makes the most of songs some of which maybe were not in Fosse’s film. Whereas she is tall, Geoffrey Hutchings as Herr Schultz is short and they make an incongruous couple. Geoffrey Hutchings has a good singing voice and is endearing as the Jewish greengrocer whose passion for Fraulein Schneider is extinguished cruelly when she rejects him on racial grounds. Harriet Thorpe also puts in a good cameo as Fraulein Schneider’s lodger, the man eating Fraulein Kost. Michael Hayden, no stranger to New York audiences, presents a likeable and gentlemanly Clifford Bradshaw, an innocent American in this depraved European city.
This production has exciting design elements such as the camera eye which opens to reveal the Emcee. I also liked the set’s purple and black soaring wedges, assymetrical, dark and mysterious, club dancers behind bed frames of interlocking iron net used like cages, the enormous letters of CABARET ready to be toppled. There are many witty touches: Herr Schultz’s pineapple scene with a hula girl in the background. “Money, Money” is sung without Sally by the Emcee in a padded fat man suit full of balloons which are popped to reveal the thin man under the inflationary hype. The Nazis chillingly beat people up and perform cartwheels symbolic of the roll they are on which makes them answerable to none.
I came away from Norris’s Cabaret thinking about the indignities suffered by Germany at the Treaty of Versailles, after a war which Germans widely perceived as just, and how the conditions were created which allowed 1930s Nationalism to take hold. How this shameful history ends we all know — in a Holocaust which taints all things German.
The first act closes with the uplifting anthem, a lone Nazi youth singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. Why is it that nationalist movements have all the best rousing tunes? But in a brilliant design coup, Norris has the cast step out of their coats and naked, ascend trees in a visual symbol of rebirth, of Aryan cleanliness and probity. This scene is emotively paralleled in the finale as naked bodies, huddling in the cold, with snow falling, witness to the actuality of the Aryan Dream, the murder and brutal suffering of millions of innocents.
Return visit to the Kit Kat Club in 2007 with Kim Medcalf as Sally Bowles and Honor Blackman as Fraulein Schneider
We were invited to see Rufus Norris’ Cabaret with its new stars. The show has extended and is taking bookings to March 2008. James Dreyfus is still fabulous as the world weary EmCee and Sally Bowles is now played by ex-Eastenders actor Kim Medcalf, who is simply marvellous. The role of Fraulein Schneider sees the departure of Sheila Hancock, who won the Olivier for Best Supporting Woman in a Musical, and is taken on by Ex Bond girl, Pussy Galore, Honor Blackman. Francis Matthews, best remembered as the voice of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Captain Scarlet, is Herr Scultz the greengrocer.
I adored Kim Medcalf’s performance as Sally. Despite being a blonde, she has gone for a black bob and the nun’s outfit she wears in her opening number is black rather than cream. Kim Medcalf has a great voice but she deliberately gives the impression of Sally Bowles’ lack of accomplishment which cannot be an easy task for an actress. It is of course a wonderful show and the set piece choreography is outstanding. After the show one of the dancers, Sean Hackett, who has just joined the cast told me that many of the routines have at their core photographs taken in the 1930s. This must be what has created such nostalgia and visual authenticity.
On second viewing I missed Sheila Hancock’s picture of a selfish, uncaring Aryan woman. Honor Blackman is far too beautiful and prettily behaved for us to dislike her, so the point of middle-class German complacency after the upheaval of the war and the great depression is less effectively made. Francis Matthews has a good singing voice as Herr Schultz, Fraulein Schneider’s romantic interest.
As a seasoned theatre goer there are few London shows I want to see for the second time, let alone the third, but if someone gives me tickets to see Cabaret again, I’ll be there!
Telephone Song/Telephone Dance
Don’t Tell Mama
It Couldn’t Please Me More (A Pineapple)
Tomorrow Belongs to Me
Why Should I Wake Up?
Maybe This Time
Tomorrow Belongs to Me
Entr’acte / Kickline
If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)
What Would You Do?
I Don’t Care Much
Willkommen (Reprise) / Finale Ultimo
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed by Rufus Norris
Choreographed by Javier de Frutos
Anna Maxwell Martin
Director: Rufus Norris
Choreographer: Javier de Frutos
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Musical Supervisor: David Steadman
Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Sound Designer: Ben Harrison
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with an interval
Closed on 21st June 2008
London W1D 7ES
Tube : Piccadilly Circus
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
Lyric Theatre on 12th October 2006