Circus of the damned

A new staging of Cabaret plays up all the darker elements of the story. Paul Taylor gets a sneak preview of the dirty denizens of the Kit Kat Club - and he's impressed
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Anna Maxwell Martin jokes that her public image is of "someone crying in a corset". This superb young actress made her name on the small screen with a Bafta-winning portrayal of the stoically unassuming, smallpox-afflicted Esther Summerson, all outward plainness and inner beauty, in the BBC adaptation of Dickens's Bleak House. On stage, in addition to giving the most moving impersonation that I've ever seen by an adult actor of childhood (as Lyra in the National Theatre's take on His Dark Materials), she has been associated with roles that require her to do a lot of suffering while constrained in period costume, in productions ranging from Three Sisters to Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia.

Now, though, the Victorian stays are being loosened with a vengeance. Maxwell Martin is about to strut the boards as Sally Bowles, the would-be scandalous singer in Berlin's Kit Kat Club in the decadent last days of the Weimar Republic. A new West End production of the musical Cabaret begins previews on Friday. "I'm not a sex symbol," she laughs. "If this Sally is going to have big tits and a pert arse, there'll have to be major plastic surgery before the press night." But, as sitting in on rehearsals confirmed for me, it's impossible to take your eyes off this performer. Besides, it's not just Maxwell Martin who is having the make-over. The revival - directed by Rufus Norris (Festen, Market Boy) and choreographed by the artistic chief of Phoenix Dance Theatre, Javier de Frutos - is itself receiving a fresh look.

Premiered on Broadway in 1966, the musical was based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, which was in turn based on Christopher Isherwood's candid-cum-cagey autobiographical stories about an English visitor's experiences in Berlin at the start of the 1930s. Cabaret is one of those shows that continue to evolve over time, and it's intriguing that the two outstanding versions so far have been those that took the greatest liberties. In all versions of the piece, the challenge is to find the right relationship between these elements: Sally's talent (or lack of it); the hero's fluid sexuality; the rise of Nazism; the life-is-a-cabaret metaphor; and where the ostensibly satanic MC stands vis-à-vis all of the above.

If the 1966 musical turned the male protagonist (a wannabe-novelist and Isherwood-surrogate) into a fully paid-up straight boy from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Bob Fosse's Oscar-laden 1972 movie version went back to the source and allowed the character to be English and bisexual. Eschewing stage-conventions, the film realistically confined all the song-and-dance numbers to the Kit Kat Club (except for the beer-garden scene where "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" is gradually exposed as a Nazi anthem). It assigned the role of Sally to Liza Minnelli, who delivered a performance that is both a total knockout and a betrayal of the emotional premise of the piece. Here was a brash good-sport American Sally, whose cabaret act was so electric that she'd have been snapped up by the Folies Bergères as soon as she opened her mouth.

The next landmark Cabaret was directed by Sam Mendes. It began life at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993 and eventually transferred to Broadway, where it achieved the rare distinction of outstripping the long run chalked up by the original production. In this version, the audience became implicated patrons of the Kit Kat Club, sitting at tables where they were liable to be pounced on by Alan Cumming's all-seeing, all-knowing and pansexual MC. Replacing certain songs from the stage show with those written specially for the film ("Mein Herr", "Money", "Maybe This Time"), this radically deglamorised account added material establishing Cliff's homosexuality and, to the point of overkill, inexorably inched from cabaret to concentration camp, the MC finally removing his coat to reveal the outfit of an inmate.

The American actor Michael Hayden played Cliff in Mendes' production during its run at Studio 54. He reappears now in the same role in this new version, which he describes as "harder-edged". Where Mendes literalised the central metaphor, turning the whole world into a cabaret, Norris and De Frutos take us out into Weimar Berlin. The movie engineered some savagely jolting cross-cuts (a frivolous lederhosen slapping-song in the club spliced, for example, with the brutal beating-up of a Jew). In the new stage-adaptation, much will be made of the transitions between the different locales in order to reveal a Berlin where the poverty of hyperinflation and the pulse of cocaine-fuelled hedonism are symbiotic. The völkisch kinkiness of the naturist clubs that were all the rage will be nakedly flashed.

Fixing on Isherwood's "I am a camera" image, the production will present the city partly through Cliff's eyes. De Frutos likens this subjective effect to "that Smirnoff ad where the bottle passes and the whole view changes". "As a repressed naïf coming to an exciting place, he's going to see the city in dark, deep rich multi-colour," says Norris, "and then as he gains in awareness, those colours fade away, leaving something much harsher and less erotic." The numbers in the club will be choreographed so as to show how these performers, working on a shoestring, took their inspiration from the streets. As a way of indicating that Cliff had experimented with homosexuality, Mendes beefed up the role of Bobby, the bartender. The character is further developed here. "We're blessed that we've got a black actor playing the part," Norris says, "which creates opportunities in terms of the rise of Nazism. A black homosexual in that society would have been target number one."

Watching a couple of rehearsals gives me a vivid impression of what the new Cabaret is aiming for. When James Dreyfus's MC and his pair of female sidekicks sing "Two Ladies", with floppy penises as gender-confusing props, the number expands choreographically to embrace a witty vision of Berlin as a place of wildly surreal free sex. Songs (such as "Money") have been given cunning new contexts in the restructured drama and are used to underscore one another as commentary. The tension between repression and romanticism in the newcomer Cliff comes over powerfully in a dream-like sequence where the character tenderly inserts himself between Bobby and the clarinet that the latter is playing.

Cabaret is not the only "tuner" opening this autumn to feature Nazis. The Sound of Music has just pulled off a massive publicity coup by recruiting its star via reality television. But you could never cast the lead in Cabaret through such a stunt. In giving the role to Maxwell Martin, who is making her musical debut, Norris has wisely chosen to go for a first-rate actress who can sing rather than a singer who acts. Performers in the role have run the gamut from Minnelli, whose prowess as a chanteuse and dancer made the proceedings faintly preposterous, to Jane Horrocks, who, in the London premiere of Mendes' production, deliberately suggested a Sally who lacked talent. For Maxwell Martin, Sally's problem is not that she can't deliver the goods, but that she's often "too tired, hammered and pissed" to get her professional act together.

It's a tricky and complex role because the character is a tantalising enigma. There's the Sally who is desperate to be thought shocking and the Sally who can laugh at this. There's the Sally who can realistically opt for an abortion and the Sally who needs to take refuge in the sordid make-believe of the cabaret and the illusion that she'll one day be a film star. Hayden says that Cliff and Sally "both serve each other's denial". The touching thing about their romance, as Maxwell Martin notes, is that "they try to live this pretend life".

In what kind of emotional state (or states) an actress delivers the climactic title number depends on the particular context the production provides. Norris and co have been playing round with various possibilities, she tells me. For example, does Sally witness Cliff being beaten up and still go ahead with the song? Minnelli delivered the song as someone for whom showbiz is the ultimate drug. Natasha Richardson, who played the lead for Mendes in New York, brought the hysteria of the desperate to the song's brassy bravado.

Though they must envy the hype that How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? has given The Sound of Music, the makers are asking an altogether more interesting question as they address the problem of how you rise to the challenge that is Cabaret.

'Cabaret' previews at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (08708 901 107), from 22 September

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