[Note: there is a little more to this story. For what happened in the couple of days after I posted this, click here. It’s never fun to get a bad review, but some of Will Young’s fans, it turns out, are hilariously childish and petulant, particularly when they start sending email.]
Welkuurmen, beenvanoo, wilcam… eem cubaray…
No, my spell-check has not gone insane. Those are just a few of the words in ‘Wilkommen’, the opening number of Cabaret, that Mr. Will Young is apparently unable to pronounce, whatever accent he’s trying to do. You might suspect that it’s not a good sign when a show’s above-the-title star mangles the first three words he sings at the top of the first act, and you’d be right, but on this occasion it’s worth exercising a little patience. Not for Mr. Young or for Ms. Michelle Ryan, his leading lady – they’re both awful – but for just about everyone else. It isn’t simply that this London-bound revisal of Rufus Norris’s 2006 revisal is a mixed bag. It’s both better and worse than that. It’s a bold, intriguing, intelligent, stylish production with a strong ensemble and a couple of truly remarkable supporting performances, but with a pair of inept celebrity stunt castees shoehorned in to the two most prominent roles in order to pull in the punters because it’s only about four years since the show was last in the West End. What are they like? Put it this way: Rufus Norris, the director, might as well have cast Kermit and Miss Piggy. In fact, they’d probably be an improvement. At least they’d be interesting.
What saves the production is the fact that, unlike the film, Cabaret on stage has always been an ensemble piece in which the focus is split between several characters. Despite Michael York’s fine work, the film rests mostly on Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey – or at least, it’s their musical numbers that people remember afterwards. While the stage version has gone through, it seems, as many different permutations as it’s had major metropolitan revivals – really, you’d imagine from the show’s production history that Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book, delivered a piece of unplayable crap that directors have spent the past 46 years trying to fix, when in fact his original version is superior in nearly every respect to more or less all the revised versions that have followed – it’s always retained a far wider focus than Jay Presson Allen’s (overrated) screenplay. That’s especially useful here, because it means that this production’s hellish miscasting of the actors playing the Emcee and Sally Bowles does not take the rest of the show down with them. It’s not that they’re not that bad – they just don’t have as much stage time as you might expect. Thank God.
So what’s good? A terrific set of sliding panels, ladders, cages and translucent flats by Katrina Lindsay – we are not, in this production, aping the Sam Mendes staging in which everything took place in the Kit Kat Klub, even when it didn’t, and for that relief much thanks – and equally terrific atmospheric lighting from Mark Howett. This is as good-looking a production of Cabaret as you could ever expect to find, and it does not, thank God, bathe you in sleaze from the moment the curtain rises. You see plenty of people snort cocaine, but none of the dancers have visible track-marks. After the skank-overload that characterised the Mendes revival, trust me, that’s a blessing.
And the dancers are great. Norris and his choreographer, Javier de Frutos, have found a superb ensemble. The bit-parts in scenes are all expertly played, the singing is excellent, and de Frutos’s choreography is often genuinely revelatory. This is a rather more dance-centric production of Cabaret than previous major stagings – not a surprising route to take if you have a choreographer of de Frutos’s calibre on board – but it works, and works well. De Frutos has managed the difficult trick of reimagining each of the show’s iconic musical numbers without changing their intent or their subtext. For ‘Money, Money’, he presents the Emcee in a grotesque balloon fatsuit that gets pricked and deflated as the recession bites. The first ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – which in this production is the Act One finale – is a truly creepy human puppet-show in which the singer manipulates the chorus line into performing the Nazi salute. We get ‘Mein Herr’ from the film, but there isn’t a wooden chair in sight. The gorilla number uses projections and sleight-of-hand rather than an actor in an actual gorilla costume, and is chillingly effective.
Transitions between scenes are often choreographed, and some numbers – most notably ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ – are woven around dialogue to create transitional montages (‘Don’t Tell Mama’, indeed, is seen from behind and only half-heard, as the first scene between Cliff and Bobby takes place ‘backstage’ at the Kit Kat Klub while Sally is out front performing the number). ‘Two Ladies’ features way more than two ladies, several men, and a bed with a trick opening through which any number of people and props can enter and exit. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s appropriately raunchy and decadent, but it’s also – I keep saying ‘Thank God’, don’t I? – far subtler than the Mendes production was in either its London or North American incarnations, and far less self-consciously skanky (can you tell I really didn’t like the Mendes production very much?). You don’t see a Swastika until the last thirty seconds of Act One, or a Nazi uniform until midway through Act Two – Norris does a far, far better job than Mendes did of showing us the gradual, insidious growth in the Nazi Party’s influence. There’s a concentration camp tableau at the end, but unlike the one Mendes gave us, it doesn’t feel tacked-on or gimmicky. If you have to present a revised version of Cabaret, this is as good as any and better than most.
And yet, and yet… I liked this version of the show, the cuts and alterations are intelligently chosen, and the show plays briskly (theoretically two hours twenty minutes including an intermission), but there wasn’t anything much wrong with the original book and score, beyond the original book’s uncomfortable presentation of Cliff as unequivocally straight. This is not a show that needs extensive revision, but for some strange reason, it usually gets it – although, of course, these days it’s hardly unusual for a major revival of a post-1940s musical to incorporate significant revisions, and the revisions here are less egregious than some.
What else is good? Henry Luxemburg as Cliff. He’s the understudy, and he’s great. One of this particular production’s huge achievements is that it’s always clear that what we’re watching is primarily Cliff’s story – which it technically is in every other version as well, but Cliff often gets somewhat lost among a parade of more colourful supporting characters. That’s not the case here. Also, the wonderful, always-welcome Harriet Thorpe (you might have seen her in AbFab) is a sharp, brassy Fraulein Kost, and Nicholas Tizzard is a stealthily insinuating Herr Ludwig. They’re impeccable. Even better, there’s Sian Phillips and Linal Haft as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. He’s superb, she’s perfect. Her scenes in the second act, in particular, are so riveting that they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves.
Which is a good thing, because you won’t get much value out of Mr. Young or Ms. Ryan. Mr. Young is essentially delivering a Xerox of James Dreyfus’s performance as the Emcee in this production’s earlier incarnation. He’s a far better singer than Mr. Dreyfus – his best, most effective moment comes with the interpolated ‘I Don’t Care Much’, because he doesn’t have to do anything much except stand still and sing the damn song – but he’s no kind of actor at all, although he certainly throws himself into it. He has approximately the charisma of a 15-watt lightbulb, and he gives the impression of having learned every gesture, every line and every vocal tic by rote, with no sense at all of what the intentions behind them might have been. And he’s better than Ms. Ryan, who seems completely at sea. She hits all her marks and has the sort of voice and look that could be convincing as Sally Bowles – you don’t need to be a great singer to score in this role – but she is never believable for even a second. She begins the show with an overdone cut-glass accent that seems about to slip off at any moment, as if it was a dress that was four sizes too big – and that’s an interesting place to start with Sally Bowles, but it’s also more or less what Anna Maxwell-Martin did in this production’s previous incarnation, and Ms. Ryan never takes the idea anywhere. Her every line is stilted; the impression you get is less of a performance in character, and more of a child playing dressup. That, too, is potentially an interesting direction in which to take Sally Bowles, but she doesn’t. There’s simply nothing there at all, apart from an uncanny ability to suck all the energy and life out of everything within fifteen feet of her onstage. At any given moment, whatever she’s doing, saying or singing, Ms. Ryan is invariably almost completely blank.
And yes, that’s cruel, but there’s a serious point: Mr. Young is a very, very good pop star. Ms. Ryan can be quite compelling on television (she was great in her guest shot in Doctor Who). This is not their venue; they’re not here because they’re suitable for their roles, they’re here because producers – I’m looking at you, Bill Kenwright – think that punters will pay to go to the theatre to, essentially, watch them jump through hoops as if they were performing seals. There’s nothing at all wrong with casting stars from other branches of the entertainment industry in order to put bums on seats – as long as those stars are capable of giving a competent account of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. This afternoon, at the curtain call, I did something I haven’t done for a very, very long time: when Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan walked out to take their bows, I stopped clapping. I was not alone. The applause dipped noticeably when they walked out, and the chatter I heard around me as I left the building* rather strongly suggested to me that a significant number of people were significantly underwhelmed with these two performers. Regional theatre audiences are not stupid. We know what is good, and we know what is cynical stunt-casting – and it was clear what people felt they got this afternoon.
If I sound angry, I am: to put it bluntly, Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan’s performances this afternoon were an insult to my Visa statement, because their work was not of a quality that was worth paying for. Tickets are not cheap, even for touring productions; it costs a fair amount of money even to sit in the nosebleed seats, and we’re entitled to expect, once we’ve plunked down the cash or the plastic, to receive something a little more evolved than an ersatz reproduction of a more interesting performance that someone else gave somewhere else five years ago. As it stands, I’ve no idea at all what Mr. Young might bring to the role of the Emcee – I only know that he can be coached to spend two hours hitting all the same marks James Dreyfus did. That’s not theatre, it’s 3D photocopying, and it’s a waste of time and money.
* Three minutes or so before the second act began, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The theatre’s front-of-house staff did a very, very impressive job indeed of getting people out quickly and calmly, and it was either a false alarm or something very minor because we were back inside within half an hour, but God, some people are stupid. And selfish. NO, if a fire alarm goes off and a recorded voice tells you to evacuate the building via the nearest exit, it probably ISN’T part of the pre-show for Act Two. No, you probably shouldn’t try to shove your way back to your seat against the tide of people streaming towards the exit. When you leave the building, it’s probably not a good idea to mill around immediately in front of the doors. It’s certainly not a good idea to wait for the lift (for a start, if there’s a fire alarm, the lift probably isn’t going to come) or stand at the top of the staircase complaining about having to go outside. The staff, as I said, did an absolutely brilliant job; a small but significant number of patrons made that job harder by, essentially, being stupid or selfish or both.