By Victoria Ng
Prior to seeing the musical, my initial impression of Cabaret was that of a raunchy spectacle with a single purpose: to entertain. The fishnets and suspenders were a given, as were the sexual innuendos and flashy dance numbers. But Hilde Bede Theatre’s production skilfully struck a balance between its alluring nature and the tremors of the insidious political climate during the Nazis’ rise to power in Weimar Germany that undercut the progression of the musical.
Directors Isabelle Culkin and Claire Simonis stated that they did not want Cabaret to be presented as just a ‘sexy’ production, and the creative direction and general feel of the show stemmed from this. It was evident that whilst the steamy, glistening atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub was conveyed in the most entertaining way, the directors have put immense thought into every scene and movement so that there was an eerie feeling in every scene that something was not quite right. Especially clever was the insinuation of the Emcee and the Kit Kat Ensemble into the scenes, for instance, them draping over the steps in a scene between Frau Scheider and Herr Schultz, that was hugely unsettling, never allowing us to forget the seedy, hedonistic culture of Berlin.
The acting was of professional level. Particularly commendable was Theodore Holt-Bailey who played the Master of Ceremonies. Opening the musical with ‘Willkommen’, wearing nothing but a white waistcoat as a top and face painted white with over-exaggerated blush, had the effect of a vaudeville-esque image that was sinister and grotesque. But (and I’m not sure if this is just me) Theodore’s Emcee had the ability to make you oddly attracted to him in the strangest way, in spite of his disjointed movements and drag costuming. The restraint demonstrated in not going too far with the Emcee’s sexuality and maintaining the more human elements as shown in his expressions and subtle movements gave the Emcee such dimension that it was terrifying and impressive.
Contrasting to the hedonistic and frivolous nature of the Kit Kat Klub, Saroja Lily Ratnavel and Elliot Mather’s portrayal of the couple of Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz was endearing and elicited a few ‘aww’s from the audience. Their duet ‘It Couldn’t Please Me More’ over a pineapple was so wholesome and pure that the audience couldn’t help but be invested in their relationship. The sincerity that both Saroja and Elliot brought to their characters was so effective that the calling off of their engagement due to the anti-Semitic political climate drove home the true subject matter of Cabaret and seriously impacted the audience.
Katie Sterland, who played Sally was also exceptional and so well-casted. Her portrayal was so effortless and believable despite the character’s over-the-top personality. Her rendition of ‘Cabaret’ was perhaps the most memorable part for me. It was executed with such vocal prowess and emotion, and we were able to experience her desperation to hold onto the façade and glamour of the Kit Kat Klub, and the desire to ignore the realities of the world that had started to unravel around her. Katie’s chemistry with Kane Taylor, who played Cliff Bradshaw was enjoyable to watch. The maturity and subtlety in Kane’s portrayal of Cliff aided in the direct contrast between his personality and Sally’s, though I felt like it the acting could have been more varied.
Some moments did seem to fall flat. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate creative direction, or simply a first-night mistake, but in particularly jarring and slightly underwhelming was the scene where Ernst and Cliff face each other in the Kit Kat Klub. While it seems as if the dialogue was desperately trying to escalate the tension up to a ‘fight scene’, it never reached a climax point, possibly because neither actor truly committed to the action of that scene. In the scene, Cliff pushes Ernst backwards, instigating a fight, and out of nowhere Rory McNeilage – in the role of a bodyguard? – had come to his defence and, with Ernst, dragged him backstage. Such a crucial scene that really illustrates the influence and power that the Nazi party had, and for it to fall flat was slightly disappointing. A reworking of this section could see a more physical or violent confrontation that truly showed the danger and oppression that characterised the Nazi party.
Aside from the feedback with the sound and occasional fading in and out of the mics, Freddy Sherwood did a great job with the sound design. I won’t spoil exactly what happened, but suffice to say the extremely precise timing of a certain sound cue, paired with the choice of volume was completely unexpected and shocking (literally had me jumping out of my seat), effectively encapsulating of the severity of what had just happened. The musical director, Rhys Rodrigues also did an excellent job of creating a mood that was threatening and uncomfortable.
Cabaret was a stunning and well-thought out production on the whole. The team focused on the historical links to Isherwood and the show that resulted in an atmosphere that grew increasingly unsettling. It was with clever use of set, deliberate pacing and brilliant acting that gave the production a quality that was not just limited to a ‘sexy’ spectacle, but a piece with graver undertones that reflected on the disturbing malevolence of the Nazi party.
Photograph: Cabaret prod team