Hayes Theatre, January 31


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Paul Capsis (centre) as the Emcee and cast. Photo: John McRae.


It creeps up on you like a cancer. Perhaps the blithe, swirling decadence contributes in its way, helping make the conditions ripe, as a failing immune system does. When Herr Ludwig’s vividly red swastika armband first appears it has the shock-value of an open wound. And from there Nazism slinks from shadowy presence to violent force to inescapable dominance.

Producer David Hawkins’ decision to revive Cabaret was made long before Trump was even a candidate, but as each hour’s news brings fresh assaults on freedom and decency, fresh rounds of bullying and “alternate facts”, the faint echoes of  Nazism’s step-by-stealthy-step elimination of opposition are frightening. Then again, as the title song says:

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom / To wipe every smile away? / Life is a cabaret, old chum! / So come to the cabaret!

So in we troop, the air as thick with expectancy as the stage is with debauchery, because you just know deep in your heart that Paul Capsis and the Emcee were made for each other. And for once expectations aren’t dashed. The only thing dashed is the memory of all previous Emcees, so towering, glowering, wicked and wonderful is Capsis’s performance. This is the Emcee turned into a shrieking devil, a looming cartoon and a provocative vamp, with light-switch transitions from being hysterically funny to being oddly, unexpectedly moving. Capsis’s control over his shattering changes of vocal timbre is virtuosic and almost shocking on occasion. He swaggers and teases and delights in the ritualised pornography.

Herein lies this productions next biggest asset: Kelley Abbey’s choreography. This is so deliciously lewd it is as though the Kit Kat Klub has become the damp patch on the bed of the rise of Nazism. Conceiving of the manic, enthralling routines was one thing: fitting them on to the Hayes Theatre’s baby stage was another, and this has been brilliantly executed.

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Chelsea Gibb as Sally Bowles. Photo: John McRae.

In fact the little theatre becomes a crucible in which Abbey’s dance routines, Kander and Ebb’s utterly timeless songs and Joe Masteroff’s masterful book (relatively under-acknowledged across the years) fizz in such close proximity to you that you start to feel like a character with a non-speaking part.

Chelsea Gibb brings both strengths and weaknesses to Sally Bowles. She has adopted an odd, slightly parodic upper-class English accent that never feels quite secure, and therefore never quite convincing. She is also older than Sally has generally been played, changing the dynamic with Cliff Bradshaw (Jason Kos). But then her bright red hair (rather than the accepted black bob) shouts that this is a different portrayal, and her flashing eyes and feline persona make the character big enough to viably share the stage with Capsis, and she nails the dancing and singing aspects.

Inevitably they both dwarf Cliff, always a difficult character to play, because he is so wet and passive. Although Kos makes little advance on that, he can only partly be blamed, because the flaw is embedded deep in the original creation of the show.

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Something’s sinister in the state of Germany. Photo: John McRae.

Kate Fitzpatrick (Fraulein Schneider) and John O’May (Herr Schultz) are superb in keeping their roles understated and naturalistic, thereby compounding both the gentle humour and the more telling pathos. Debora Krizak is typically charismatic as Fraulein Kost, with her bill-paying addiction to sailors, and Marcus Graham brilliantly ensnares us in Ernst Ludwig’s charm and warmth before revealing his true (red and black) colours.

As with Abbey’s choreography, Nicholas Christo’s direction functions like a zoom lens on a camera, bringing moments of action not just into sharper focus, but right into our faces, aided by James Browne’s brown-brick set thrusting, diamond-shaped, into the audience. Plaudits too for the ensemble cast, Drew-Elizabeth Johnstone’s wigs and hair, and Mariel McClorey’s make-up.

A special commendation is reserved for Lindsay Partridge’s musical direction, which ingeniously shrinks John Kander’s score down to a septet without losing its vitality and panache.

Until March 5 (and almost sold out).