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Thirties Berlin recreated
19 Aug 2008
Janet van Eeden

Cabaret was immortalised in 1972 by the film version directed by Bob Fosse. It won eight Oscars that year, two of which went to Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey for their portrayals of Sally Bowles and the Emcee, respectively. Inevitably, any subsequent production is compared to the film, as the roles of the Emcee and Sally Bowles have to bear comparison with the iconic performances of Minnelli and Grey.

Fortunately, anyone going to Peter Mitchell’s production of Cabaret currently on at the Hexagon Theatre will not be disappointed. Caitlin Kilburn is magnificent as Sally and Justin Southey is equally powerful as the Emcee. Kilburn’s quirky features give perfect expression to the very British Sally with questionable morality as she sings and dances her way into the-innocent-abroad Cliff Bradshaw’s (James Aitchison) life. Kilburn has immense talent as a singer and she performed the show-stoppers with passion and flair. Her acting is infectiously compelling too.

The role of the Emcee is tailor-made for Southey. As a self-confessed “non-singer” he does admirably well with the songs but his portrayal of the sinister Emcee who veers between a slightly deranged clown and a malicious embodiment of evil is superb. The Emcee’s role makes or breaks any production of this play and Southey definitely makes this production a cut above the rest. This performance is the best he’s ever done, in my opinion.

The strength of this production also lies in the production design and direction which has to recreate the thirties ambience of Berlin’s nightclubs. Based on the world described by Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories, the milieu is the Weimar Republic, under a government that encouraged sexual indulgence of all kinds. Peter Mitchell’s expert direction brings this world vividly to life. The set is dominated by the false proscenium arch which houses the Kit Kat Club’s 10-piece orchestra and forms the backdrop of the play. Simple set details serve to recreate Frau Schneider’s (Diana Wilson) boarding house, and a railway carriage, and so on. But it is in the performances of the actors and singers and their costumes that Mitchell has created the sleazy world of the Kit Kat Club and early Nazi Germany Berlin. Every one of the chorus girls and boys, even when they are changing sets in their knickers and camisoles, embodies the mood of the play. It is in this way that Mitchell skilfully recreates the atmosphere of a world in flux.

Aitchison is very good as Bradshaw as are Diana Wilson as Frau Schneider and Leo Quayle as Herr Schultz. Nathan Mitchell and Sne Makanya perform well in their supporting roles too. As always, Sandra Styles’s costume design is spot on and always has an extra twist to create a quirky commentary on the time. Even the orchestra, under the direction of Helen Vermaak with arrangement by John McGuinness, “eez beautiful!”This is a must-see production, and one of Mitchell’s best, though it must be remembered it is not for children younger than 16.

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