I Am a Camera is a not-often-performed play by John Van Druten which explores the experiences of Christopher Isherwood, the British writer, in 1930s Berlin. Of course, it is familiar territory for anyone who has seen Cabaret, the musical based on Isherwood’s writing, most famously starring Liza Minnelli, but I Am a Camera doesn’t pack the same punch as the musical. We miss out on the drama and emotional intensity of seeing characters fall in and out of love in a turbulent time, set against the backdrop of the seedy underground nightlife of Berlin, with the shadow of the Nazi Party growing longer and increasingly present. What we get instead is a nice enough biographical exploration of life inside Isherwood’s rented room that sees a cast of characters traipse through.
The characters in Blue Devil Productions’ version are all well cast, as the actors each bring something appropriate to their roles, and they certainly all warmed into their characters as the opening night performance progressed. Kitty Rose Newbury is striking as Sally Bowles and has a haunted look that she employs effectively to convey the sadness that exists behind the bravado. It is, however, disappointing that the characterisation doesn’t quite capture the exuberance and eccentricity that we expect from Sally Bowles. John Black is likeable enough as Christopher Isherwood, and the homo-erotic chemistry with Fritz Wendel, played by Benjamin Baeza, is believable and compelling. Christine Kempell gives a competent performance as Fräulein Schneider and she demonstrates particular skill at engaging with her character’s comedic moments. Karina Mills gives an understated performance as Natalia Landauer; she could afford to take more time and energy to ensure her witty remarks land with the audience. The accents of the German characters are maintained, but do sometimes mean that lines are not clear.
The production is a pacy and enjoyable trip back to 1930s Berlin. Katherine Vinicombe does a particularly excellent job on the costumes, having sourced beautiful suits and period-accurate underwear. However, there are missed opportunities. The production is clearly played for comedy and therefore the emotional and dramatic impact that this piece carries is lost; Fräulein Schneider’s anti-Semitic rant, which could feel incredibly relevant and uncomfortable for an audience living in today’s world, doesn’t really register. Moreover, the lack of emotional variation from this group of peculiar characters that mirror the heightened tension present in Berlin at that time meant that the play doesn’t evoke any strong emotional reactions from its audience. It seems a strange choice by director Ross Dinwiddy not to exploit the moments of political relevance that I Am a Camera could have. On the whole, I Am a Camera is not the perfectly marvellous evening that Sally Bowles would expect, but pleasant nonetheless.
I Am a Camera is playing the Rialto Theatre, Brighton until 26 May. For more information and tickets, see the Rialto Theatre website.