Review: Cabaret, Kit Kat Club (Playhouse Theatre) ★★★★★

Eddie Redmayne as Emcee. Photo: Marc Brenner

It is not possible to use too many superlatives when describing Rebecca Frecknall’s revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical and the star turns by Eddie Redmayne as Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles. The venue too could come in for the same treatment – the Playhouse Theatre, remodelled as the Kit Kat Club and with stage design by Tom Scutt, is a character in and of itself; and it is tremendous. Now in-the-round, it has a tiny circular stage at its heart, surrounded by tables decked with telephones and lamps at which audience members who have stumped up the prime seats sit. We are at the Cabaret, old chum, and tonight they get their money’s worth (although, more on that later).

The production is billed as intimate and immersive and the production team have gone all out to make it so – there is a glass of schnapps on arrival for every audience member while cabaret performers gyrate in front of musicians in a platform above the theatre bar both before the show and during the interval. There is even a mini-performance onstage before the second act begins.

Redmayne, in his first theatre appearance in a decade, first appears from the darkness, crooked, bent and coiled, unwrapping his limbs as the Orchestra cranks into life in the opening number, Willkommen. It sets the dark tone of what is to come. The rise of fascism and the Nazi party is perfectly tracked in his clever transformation of Emcee throughout the play – from that first redheaded appearance in a small green party hat, slightly askew on his head, to the performer who feels comfortable enough to twist a song with a last line that shockingly reveals the anti-Semitism of the piece, to his final reveal as the beige-suited blond Aryan of the new cultural landscape.

Eddie Redmayne as Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles. Photo: Marc Brenner

Meanwhile, Sally Bowles demonstrates the fallacy of idea that the political does not matter to everyday people, a belief that she holds even after Ernst (Stewart Clarke) makes clear that men like Herr Schultz (Elliot Levey), the Jewish grocer, are in danger. Buckley’s rendition of the title song is far removed from Liza Minnelli’s famous rendition, and it better for it – it is heart-wrenching; full of rage, bitterness and resentment. Omari Douglas’ Clifford Bradshaw is less obviously bi-sexual here than in other productions, the relationship with Bowles appearing more as pure convenience for Bowles and nothing else. But Douglas’ openness provides the window through which we access the production. He is the benchmark by which good and bad can be measured.

Aside from Buckley’s sensational performance of Cabaret, the emotional heart of the play is in the relationship between Bradshaw’s landlady, the non-Jewish Fraulein Schneider, and Herr Schultz, with their courtship movingly portrayed by Liza Sadovy and Levey. The heartbreak is not just Schneider’s decision to end their relationship following Ernst’s warning to her, but the knowledge is what is to come for the kindhearted Herr Schultz in just a few short years under the Nazis.

Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles. Photo: Marc Brenner

Much will be said about the ticket prices, and rightly so. While tickets in the balcony started at £30, they were of small number, and ATG’s dynamic pricing model for the production mean that, of the seats that are still available across Redmayne and Buckley’s committed dates (performances from 21 March are yet to be cast), tickets previously available at £120 are now £250 or £300 depending on the performance date. For many regular theatregoers this will be simply impossible. There is a £25 lottery – make sure you enter it for the chance to ‘come to the Cabaret’, this is a beg, borrow or steal production.

Still, despite the debate over ticket prices, Olivier Awards will likely follow, and they should. This may not just be the production of the year – it may already have claimed the title of production of the decade.

Cabaret is at the Kit Kat Club (Playhouse Theatre), booking until 1 October.