Anna Maxwell Martin
It may be 13 years since the Donmar Warehouse staged their smash-hit production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret but theatre-goers have long memories, and Rufus Norris’ new version at the Lyric Theatre, for all its attempts to do something innovative with the material, just isn’t in the same league.
Saddled also with the legacy of a film version that featured a career-best performance by Liza Minelli, this Cabaret stars Michael Hayden as Clifford, a struggling novelist who comes to Berlin in 1930 to write his ‘great’ novel and instead becomes embroiled in a decadent and politically turbulent world. At the Kit Kat Klub, he meets – and falls for – Sally Bowles, here played by an uncomfortable looking Anna Maxwell Martin.
This is a production with a lot of problems. James Dreyfus is miscast as the MC. He plays him as a big, brutish, repellant man but never allows the audience to get any real sense of him beyond that – he is never really a narrator an audience can side with. This really becomes a hindrance in the later stages of the show when the play demands that you care about his fate.
Anna Maxwell Martin has a nice enough voice, and can be funny and moving, as a woman trying to desperately hide her fragility. She manages to express something of Sally’s emotions through her songs, especially Maybe This Time and Cabaret, but again you never get any sense of why she does what she does. Even worse – as I’ve mentioned – on the night I attended she often looked deeply uncomfortable in the role. As for Michael Hayden, while he has a lovely voice, and enough charm to convince as the naive writer, ultimately you don’t believe there is any real passion between these two.
Other aspects of the production are more successful. The growing relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Geoffrey Hutchings) is beautifully portrayed. They’re both engaging performers and as a result you worry about what will happen to their characters. Sheila Hancock, in particular, is wonderful as a woman who has learnt to settle for her lot in life, both funny and tragic.
The overriding problem however, is that Norris’ Cabaret is never quite shocking, entertaining, dramatic or clever enough. The choreography, by Javier de Frutos, is far too tic-driven. In isolation some of his work has the potential to be quite beautiful and powerful, exploring through movement the near madness that these ‘bright young things’ drive themselves to in pursuit of pleasure. However, as part of an already very busy musical it simply acts as a distraction from the story. This is not helped by Katrina Lindsay’s set, stuffed full of moving walls, beds and ladders – another distraction from the action.
It is not without its successful elements. Nudity, for example, is used as a tool to depict the Nazi ideals of health and beauty, and also the full horrors of the ‘final solution’. But while it’s nice to see a British production attempting to compete with this autumn’s barrage of Broadway imports, ultimately Cabaret is just not up to the job.