Review: Cabaret by Kander and Ebb, Norwich Theatre Royal

Review: Cabaret by Kander and Ebb, Norwich Theatre Royal, until September 22

Cabaret is one of the great musicals. Not only does it have spectacular musical numbers but it is also a show of real substance offering audiences something to think about as it gives us a conducted tour of a decadent Berlin during the early 1930s.

In many ways it offers us three shows in one. On the surface we have the recreation of the KitKat club presided over by the grotesque Emcee, the second is the tragic story of English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and finally there’s Cliff Bradshaw’s outsider’s view of the rise of Nazi Germany.

The three elements combine with a stonking score to provide us with a show of real substance – a show which can withstand real scrutiny, repeated viewings and any number of varied interpretations.

The latest reworking, currently wowing capacity audiences at the Theatre Royal Norwich, stars Will Young and Michelle Ryan and will be heading into the West End on October 3. The show has been startlingly imagined by director Rufus Norris as beds, cages and ladders sweep across the stage, virtually doing a dance, as the characters perform in a twilight world telling us how Germany is changing.

Cabaret works because it is a show about people rather than spectacle. It’s a dark show but also a hugely engaging one. We care about what happens to the characters we meet.

Will Young has tremendous stage presence as the white-faced Emcee. At the start of the show, he provides us with a visual reminder of the show’s origins – Christopher Isherwood’s novel I Am A Camera – as he emerges from the letter ‘O’ in the word Wilkommen. The ‘O’ has been set up to resemble a camera lens.

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Although the Emcee functions as a guide through the story, Will invests the character ,not only with lashings of eccentricity, but with some welcome flashes of vulnerability.

Michelle Ryan successfully steps out of Liza Minnelli’s vast shadow to create a flighty, needy Sally Bowles who appears to be on the run from a stifling home counties life. She yearns for freedom but what is it that she really wants? Michelle skilfully brings out Sally’s real tragedy – her inability to emotionally commit to anything or anyone.

Sian Phillips makes a touching Fraulein Schneider, who has is forced to choose between her room-renting business and her love for Jewish greengrocer Herr Schultz, played with tender understatement by Linal Haft.

It’s a terrific re-imagining of a stunning show which will undoubtedly grow more nuanced as it settles into its London run. The highlight for me was the chilling Tomorrow Belongs To Me with the Emcee as a grotesque puppeteer.

The only slight niggles I had were that Michelle Ryan needs to have more confidence in her vocals and Cliff’s bi-sexuality is given more prominence than in previous productions and I’m not sure that helps the Cliff/Sally elements of the story. But these are only minor quibbles. Cabaret remains a stunning, moving piece of musical theatre.

Andrew Clarke

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