Review: Cabaret @ the Drama Barn

Drama Barn is “invaded” by the Nazis this week!

Drama Society’s production of Cabaret is an ambitious project. It has a large cast representing the best of an even larger audition process, which is supported by some experienced direction, inventive choreography and effective costumes. It is what I like to call the ‘grand-school-play format’: by its nature it demands a quality showing. Given as standards will inexorably be high, audience can’t simply ask questions about how the show could have been executed better. Instead, they is forced to ask new questions such as: is the show going to become more than the ‘grand-school-play’? And does it reach beyond its means in trying to set itself apart?

Before we get to that pivotal question, there’s background to fill in and brilliance to acknowledge. Our setting is the Berlin Kit Kat Club in 1931 and our story follows the meteoric rise and fall of two romances. Within the fantastical decadence of the Kit Kat club, increasingly muscular signs of Nazism soon appear. Even those that aren’t familiar with the plot will mostly be aware of the gist of Cabaret: notoriously explicit, and yet somehow extremely unsexy. Our first number, ‘Willkommen,’ doesn’t fail to deliver. There is garish and uncomfortably strong lighting, ubiquitous lingerie, and a limitless amount of risqué dance moves performed by the very capable ensemble. Never a step away from them is the grinning, vested, eye-linered, sequinned and sparkling Emcee, nicely captured by Joe MacNeice. At times it seems not even MacNeice’s cheeky braces can contain his enthused weirdness. I’m not qualified as to what constitutes excellent choreography, suffice to say for this layman no strobe-lit heel kickin’ number of Emcee & Co. looks unimaginative or fails to exhilarate.

Many ‘awww’s and laughs were generated by their fun-filled performance of two old fools in love

These dances serve as a terrifically crazy background for the two central romances of the musical. The first romance occurs between a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Jamie Bowman), and an equally young performer at the cabaret, Sally Bowles (Emma Whitworth). The leads both have finely crafted personalities: Bowman the quiet and restrained manner of an introvert writer, Whitworth the passionately unrestrained pizzazz of an extrovert performer. Whitworth may steal the show somewhat with her consistent panache (even sitting still requires a jazzy pose!), but of course she’s meant to. Nevertheless, Bowman delivers his lines with an intensity that prevents him from being turned into a stage prop. The second romance takes place between a fifty-something landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Marff Pothen), and a fifty-something tenant of hers, Herr Schultz (Matt Spalding). Both actors, especially Spalding, deliver memorably strong performances. Many ‘awww’s and laughs were generated by their fun-filled performance of two old fools in love. In addition to this they enjoyed a lack of formality clearly evident in the intimacy of Cliff and Sally. All in all it is a cracking first half.

Photo by Harry Elletson
Photo by Harry Elletson

Such commendable characterisation is limited to the first half, however. The production makes a huge tonal shift in the second. It must be said this is somewhat a structural problem with the script itself. There is only so much that can be done with two failed romances and the rise of Nazism. Regardless, I was dissatisfied with the production’s response to the issue which is to exaggerate the contrast between the two acts

Many productions of Shakespearean tragedy that I have  seen have attempted to lighten up  the first half with contrived comedic touches, before subsequently diving into an uncompromisingly bleak second half. This can make things very unbalanced for an audience. In this production of Cabaret the problem is, bizarrely, the other way round: the second half is bleaken by contrived tragic touches. What the production is trying to convey is clear but misguided. Sally and the Emcee lose all bounce and become victims of the Nazis’ vision of a pure German society. This is most evident in the song ‘Cabaret.’ What is usually a toe-tapping number is turned into a kick to the stomach as Sally Bowles, now stripped to underwear like the rest of the chorus, gives a wretched rendition. ‘Life is a Cabaret old chum’ is uttered hatefully each time , in the knowledge that life is not so free (and will become even less so), and that all fiction is being brutally stripped away. Behind her the Emcee sobs uncontrollably.

That doesn’t justify sacrificing consistency with the themes (and tone) of the first act: the German population sleepwalking into the arms of a pernicious ideology

It is a perfectly legitimate artistic move to depart from the conventional rollicking ride that Cabaret offers, but there needs to be something of value in that move for the audience. Direction evidently wants to make their Cabaret about the vicious stamp of the jackboot on society but, in doing so,  this become endnote. In exchange for a (mostly) laughing time at the theatre we’re given a quick and obvious statement: the Nazis are bad. That doesn’t justify sacrificing consistency with the themes (and tone) of the first act: the German population sleepwalking into the arms of a pernicious ideology. It’s a shame, as they show earlier in the production that they can excellently handle this theme. At the close of Act One the Nazi Ernst Ludwig (Callum Sharp) stands at the centre of a crowd in terrifying blue lighting, his freakishly wide mouth gushing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” like the black maw of death.

That being said, this is still a brilliant production. Everybody is on the ball because of careful direction and their own copious talent (not least the band, especially the versatile Katie Wood on woodwind – very well done: it was a pleasure to see thoroughly competent musicians enjoying themselves). To return to my original question then, perhaps the problem lies in trying too hard to leave behind the grand-school-play format. The greatest cultural analyses of the Nazis, when they happen (Der Untergang (2004), Conspiracy (2001), delve into the sort of psychology which was so amenable to Hitler. The physical horrors of the Nazi regime, I feel, can be constructed in a better form, but this production missed a trick in not attempting to wholesomely explore the  rich theme to which Cabaret will always be better suited to.