When in doubt, bring out the showgirls

Musicals, thank God, are not intellectually demanding, but they can be emotionally wearing
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On Broadway and in London it's the musicals, the big all-singing, all-dancing glitzy musicals that are keeping the theatre alive, not smarty arty intellectual stuff like Michael Frayn's Democracy or the revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. I heard HP on the radio the other night talking about it. What a miserable old grump he is, and apparently always has been. Alan Ayckbourn, a young aspiring actor, was in the first regional production of The Birthday Party in 1959; understandably baffled by his role (he played the persecuted Stanley), he asked Pinter, a young aspiring playwright, if he could fill in the character a little.

"Mind your own effing business," replied Pinter.

Musicals, thank God, aren't intellectually demanding. They can be emotionally wearing - I felt like cutting my throat when I came out of Les Misérables - or physically exhausting: when the final curtain came down in Carousel at the National, I was the only member of my family still awake. But at least you know where you are and what makes characters tick in Mary Poppins or The Producers or The Woman in White, the three blockbusters that are currently packing audiences into the West End. I wish I could say the same about the musical I saw last Tuesday night that is currently packing audiences into the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin. It's called Hexen, which means witches and, I'm reliably informed, its 2,000 seats have been sold out every night since it opened.

My reliable informant is my beautiful, blonde, 26-year-old, high flying (literally) aerialist niece Katharine, one of a six-girl rope-dancing troupe that performs amazing balletic stunts high above the stage in the second half of the show. Hexen is full of amazing stunts. At one point the entire stage is obscured by a massive fountain spewing molten gold into a crystal bowl the size of a swimming pool, which rose mysteriously from a trap door into the air complete with nubile bikini-clad girl swimmer inside.

So what was it all about? I haven't the faintest idea and neither, by the look on their faces, had anyone else in the audience. They got a lot of OAP coach parties in from the provinces, my niece told me when we went for a drink after the show, most of whom, the men especially, were there only for the famous Friedrichstadtpalast high-kicking chorus line. It's legendary: 60 showgirls high kicking as precisely, as immaculately, and, I have to say, as menacingly as goose-stepping Nazis. They started out wearing pinstriped suits until a giant coat hanger suddenly appeared from above and, without breaking step, they somehow whipped off their pinstripes to reveal itsy bitsy sequin and feather covered lingerie and a lot of what supermarket labels call tender free range breast and thigh portions.

How those OAPs from Königswusterhausen and Ludwigsfelde loved it. They clapped and shouted for more of what I can best describe as a cross between the Eurovision Song Contest, the Royal Variety Show and Holiday on Ice without skates.

In the interests of good reporting I'd better have a crack at explaining the storyline. Who knows, you might find yourself at a loose end one night in Berlin. Four witches, one singing, one dancing, one domineering in high boots and leather like Miss Whiplash, one comic, compete for the love of a human boy. Unfortunately we missed the first 20 minutes, the restaurant in Unter den Linden filling us up with schnitzel and sauerkraut was rather slow, so we didn't see the object of their necromantic desire emerge from a vast insect and, frankly, wouldn't have been much the wiser if we had. One by one they tried to seduce the long-suffering lad and in between attempts we had Spanish acrobats, Russian trapeze artists, cameo appearances by Napoleon, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Elvis Presley and other celebrities. And, of course, the famous Friedrichstadtpalast showgirls in a bewildering series of ever-diminishing outfits.

If ever a show added a whole new dimension to the word kitsch, this was it. Maybe I'm selling it short; I don't speak German. Then again there wasn't much dialogue, and the music was so loud you couldn't hear the lyrics. In this sort of situation I usually plug into my Walkman and listen to an audiobook but the howling of the unrequited Hexen drowned out everything. I told my elderly neighbour, an inveterate consumer of musicals, about the show. She wasn't impressed. Too busy, by the sound of it, she said. The secret of a good musical is elegant simplicity. That's why she saw My Fair Lady 127 times.

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