It is tricky to combine a glistening spectacle with a meaningful lesson in the dangers of political apathy in the format of a large-scale commercial musical. However, Rufus Norris’ production of Cabaret, playing this week at the Lowry, expels any evidence of this challenge and carries itself with a gritty flourish. With it’s impressive dancing ensemble under the powerful, image-driven choreography of Javier de Frutos, the wondrous underworld of 1930s Berlin is created in the production with an urgent and grotesque intensity.
Will Young’s omniscient Robin Goodfellow-esque Emcee is delightfully playful and tragically sinister in equal measure. His overt sexual liberty, juxtaposed and undermined in the second act by the poison of Nazi ideology, celebrates the values of fluidity and self-acceptance whilst condemning notions of conservatism, boxes and pigeonholes. There is a cheeky, self-aware genius in double-casting the Emcee as the border control officer framing either end of the musical, implying the uncrushable spirit of the city of Berlin. Young’s rendition of ‘I Don’t Care Much’ is a deeply soulful and vulnerable juxtaposition to his earlier friskiness and lust for life.
Unfortunately, the strength of Young and the ensemble seems to outweigh the performance of Louise Redknapp and her capacity for encapsulating Sally Bowles’ emotional tumult. There are disappointing moments at which opportunities to convey real emotional frustration and anguish are half-heartedly characterised and shrouded in melodrama by Redknapp and Charles Hagerty (Clifford). Redknapp is tame and pleasant, and the doomed, broken soul that lies underneath Sally’s veneer never quite reveals itself. The title song ‘Cabaret’ becomes a celebration of jolly intoxication rather than that of a tortured, floundering addict.
Norris’ reinterpretation of ‘Why Should I Wake Up’ makes a compelling change to the structure of the piece. This love song, which is most commonly sung directly to Sally to depict Cliff’s lovesick stupor, is reappropriated and shifted into a dream-like, drug-filled montage of fleeting romances and sexual encounters, entirely altering the meaning behind the lyrics. This change serves to depict Cliff’s sexual liberty and is an opportunity to explore his bisexuality onstage, but I felt that this is at the expense of any real development in the relationship between him and Sally beyond being slightly promiscuous ‘roommates’, which renders later plot developments somewhat implausible and overzealous.
Fundamentally, Cabaret doesn’t hold back on its deeply impressive powerful imagery. The particularly impactful end image is in good taste, as well as reminding us that nothing is ever ‘just politics’ and we should never simply just stand by: a message just as important now as ever. Aside from some lagging moments in the middle of both acts, this production is an inventive account of humanity’s perversions: glorious and sinister.
Cabaret is playing at The Lowry until November 11 2017.
Photo: Pamela Raith