Theatre review: Cabaret, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Cabaret
Cabaret
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IT’S not often, in these cynical times, that the sheer force of a theatrical storyline makes an audience gasp; still less so when the story belongs to a stage show and film as famous as Cabaret. Yet on Wednesday night at the Festival Theatre, the audience did gasp, when the actor Nick Tizzard – turning in an understatedly powerful performance as our hero Cliff Bradshaw’s new Berlin friend Ernst Ludwig – whips off his coat after arriving at a party to reveal for the first time the Nazi armband he has been wearing to an “important meeting”.

Cabaret, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ****

No matter how many times we watch the film – or experience Rufus Norris’s fine and explicitly political 2012 production of the stage musical – it’s difficult to avoid a terrible feeling of dread, as Joe Masteroff’s script, inspired by the Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood, leads us through the moment in 1931 when the wild, beautiful, ultra-liberal Berlin of the 1920s first began to feel the cold blast of Nazism; and as a new wave of far-right politics creeps across our continent, re-legitimising attitudes once thought to have been defeated for good in 1945, there is no avoiding the story’s contemporary relevance, or the awful challenge contained in the landlady Fraulein Schneider’s great song What Would You Do, about her decision to drop her lovely Jewish fiancé Herr Schulz, and choose survival over resistance.

In dramatic terms, Anita Harris’s brave and beautiful performance as Fraulein Schneider lies at this heart of this touring version; and elsewhere, the production sometimes looks a little underpowered, as if the cast can’t quite cope with the show’s sheer weight of meaning. John Partridge, recent Celebrity Masterchef champion, is adored by the audience to an extent that makes it difficult for him to sustain the strange and ambivalent role of the Emcee, although he gives it a good, hard-edged shot; Kara Lily Hayworth’s Sally sings sweetly but lacks dazzle, as if the political situation of which she claims to know nothing is already getting her down.

She receives unusually strong support, though, from an impressive Charles Hagerty as Cliff Bradshaw, learning a searing lesson in life and politics in a city on the edge of disaster; and if some of the cabaret numbers are irritatingly over-elaborate, and finally more visual than musical, that’s a small flaw in a production that remains devastating in its emotional and political impact, as it leads us through the glitter of the Kit Kat Club into the dark heart of 20th century history.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 12-16 November