Arts: Sisters at diva pitch

Cabaret is live and kicking again thanks to acts like the Callaway girls - and now London has its chance to say thank you
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SINGLE-HANDEDLY, exactly 12 years ago, singer Barbara Cook reignited the London cabaret scene when she entranced audiences at the Donmar Warehouse. On the back of reviews you couldn't pay for - "for two hours I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," swooned one - she sailed into the West End and has been conducting a two-way love affair with London ever since. The hot news is that she's back.

The art of cabaret is about intimacy. Cook's musical honesty is strong enough to draw you in at a gargantuan venue such as the Albert Hall, scene of her 70th birthday bash last November; but seeing her up close and personal is completely different. Tickets are simply vanishing from the Donmar box office, but, if you can't get in, there's more where that came from in the rest of the Donmar's Divas season.

Cook's week-long engagement is immediately followed by Imelda Staunton. Anyone who saw her sensational Miss Adelaide in the National's Guys and Dolls is likely to sell their grandmother for a ticket to see her fronting a brassy 10-piece big band. But first up is the London debut of sister act Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway.

With dreams of being an actress, Ann hit Manhattan three days after Liz in September 1979, and, on their first night, they walked from their "horrible hotel" into a piano bar across the street. "This pianist was asking for requests and someone suggested something and he said 'Oh I can't sing that'. But I was 21 so I said 'I can'. But then he couldn't play it so I said 'I can play it too'. So I sang 'Sometime When We Touch', got a miniature standing ovation and a job playing there six hours a night. And my piano playing was terrible. I only knew 20 songs but these people were such alcoholics they didn't notice." And within 18 months she was making the first of countless appearances at the famed Algonquin.

These days, her shelves groan beneath the weight of truckloads of cabaret awards for her appearances across the country, not to mention her songwriting which she claims "came out of desperation and being a morose adolescent". She threw a black-tie Martini party at her home when Barbra Streisand's latest album was released. Why? Because after 10 years of trying to get a song to her, Streisand recorded it. The album charted at number one and she positively purrs at the mention of the forthcoming royalties.

Over here, her reputation rests on a couple of well reviewed seasons at Pizza on the Park, but Londoners have yet to meet the kid sister. Not that Liz is exactly an unknown quantity. When Barbara Cook sang Sally in the star-studded, impossibly glamorous live concert version of Sondheim's Follies, Liz played the younger Sally. Her career trajectory too had been pretty swift. "I knew I had talent but I also knew I had a lot to learn. I wanted to be in the chorus of a Broadway show within three years. That seemed a reasonable goal."

In fact, it took just one year for her to be cast in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. During rehearsals she'd met lyricist Richard Maltby Jnr and after Merrily flopped he cast her in the lead in his cult show Baby, giving her the best song, the soaring second act knockout "The Story Goes On". Since then, she's been doing very nicely, thank you, singing the key role of the American wife in Miss Saigon, recording solo albums and lending her voice to the soundtrack of the animated Anastasia. In-between times she and Ann have occasionally managed to make their packed diaries coincide to perform together in Sibling Revelry.

On a hot Manhattan afternoon, the two are horsing around in a rehearsal studio, cheerfully upstaging each other as they fine-tune their evening of duets and solos.

At one point, they hurl themselves into a theatrical medley to rival Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, covering everything from the predictable "Sisters", through to the famous Garland/Streisand big-belt arrangement of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again". Sandwiched in-between is a snatch of the dramatic "A Boy Like That" from West Side Story. Ann growls, raising herself to her full 5ft 10in. "Look, if this is melodrama, I really should play melodrama..." "Oh no, no," begs Liz, "please..." Divas they may be, self-important they're not.

As Ann tells it, the differences between them are that while growing up "Liz read Nancy Drew mysteries, I read Dorothy Parker. She listened to the Monkees, I listened to Miles Davis". That explains the jazz inflections of Ann's vocal style. She has both a phenomenal three-octave range and an uncanny ability to impersonate everything from a tenor sax to a high trumpet.

As for the Dorothy Parker note, it sums up her laconic wit. Liz is the more optimistic of the two, a quality that translates into an appealingly fresh, hopeful sound. It's also a dramatic voice, so it's slightly surprising to learn that she doesn't really like doing solo work. "If the whole of Sibling Revelry were duets I'd be really happy." Audiences thrilling to her powerhouse rendition of Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark" are likely to disagree.

Yet cabaret singing is largely considered to be a dying form. The classic American songbook has been betrayed by schmoozy lounge acts. The almost forgotten marriage of musical and textual truth is at the heart of the Divas at the Donmar season. "What we do is kind of rare these days," concedes Ann. "You get up, you plant your feet on stage, you sing. And they can see everything that's going on inside of you. There's nothing fake in this type of performance. You can't lie."

The Callaways' success back home proves the existence of a growing audience for this kind of intimacy. If they have anything to do with it, London will respond in the same way.

Divas at the Donmar: The Callaways are in 'Sibling Revelry', 10-22 August; Barbara Cook (24-29 August); Imelda Staunton (1-5 Sept) (0171 369 1732)