Theatre / Willkommen: Robert Hanks and Edward Seckerson on the London revival of Cabaret

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The Independent Culture
It's faintly disturbing to be told, on entering the Donmar, that you can take plastic glasses only into the auditorium, and then to find that the night-club style tables have all been screwed to the floor. I mean, are they expecting trouble here?

In fact, if you were going to pick holes in Sam Mendes' production of Cabaret, it would be excessive gentility that you'd go for: the boys and girls of the Kit Kat Club all have beautifully louche hairstyles but, underneath, they're all far too well- scrubbed and healthy, and their shared repertoire of crotch-grabbing gestures comes straight out of the RSC, not Thirties Berlin.

But you really would be picking holes. There's a great deal of low cunning in the way Mendes conveys the slow chill that Nazism brings, as bigotry finds licence. Yes, the level of energy in ensemble occasionally flags, but there is a raft of marvellous individual performances: Sara Kestelman as Fraulein Schneider, George Raistrick as Schultz, the Jewish greengrocer, Michael Gardiner as an urbane Nazi, Adam Godley as a gangling American innocent abroad. There's also Alan Cumming's rouge-nippled emcee, superbly drilled in the set- pieces but also confident enough to mess around - after the interval, for instance, cutting a rug with a bit of rough trade he's yanked out of the audience.

And there's Jane Horrocks, playing Sally Bowles as a cross between Jessie Matthews and Daffy Duck - cut- glass Chelsea accent, but with an edge of manic misanthropy that reaches a climax in the title-song. In the film it was a triumphal, life-affirming defiance of fate; here, it becomes a satirical outpouring of venom. It isn't pretty, but it stops you getting complacent. And that's exactly the way it should be.

Robert Hanks

Yes, here at the Kit Kat Club even the orchestra is beautiful. And it doesn't really matter how well they play, it's how they play - because everything in Kander and Ebb's cunning score is on the turn and beginning to smell. Michael Gibson's divinely decadent orchestrations certainly do, jaundiced violin and cello, seedy clarinets and the wheeze of piano accordion offsetting vulgar, honking brasses. It's decomposition time: familiar styles curdle before our ears - quite literally so in the closing moments of the show as the harmonies of 'Willkommen' are hideously disfigured. In Berlin, the party's over.

That's the hidden agenda behind every one of these songs. There's a desperation about the cabaret numbers, so skilful as to be above pastiche: it's the Jazz Age crossed with 1930s musical comedy. Meanwhile, in the world outside the Kit Kat club, Jewish inflections mingle with a Dietrich-like nostalgia in the numbers for Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. And, of course, the beer-gardens loom large in the rallying song 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me', which, in an inspired touch, first appears here on an old gramophone record - the voice of an angelic Hitler youth, scratchy and indistinct - the past heralding the future.

Chilling. Though not half as chilling as the tawdry spectacle of Jane Horrocks' pukka flapper of a Sally Bowles coming apart, not so much singing as screaming her defiance in the title song. Makes you realise how totally miscast Liza Minnelli was.

Edward Seckerson

Donmar Warehouse, Earlham St WC2 (071-867 1150)

(Photograph omitted)

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