Arts: Cabaret. They can't take it away from us

Simon Callow
Friday 18 September 1998 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


TO THE Algonquin on Friday night to see the cabaret show described by the New Yorker critic as the best cabaret show he has ever seen. The man from the New Yorker got it right: it was an exquisite evening, funny and tender, and simplicity itself. Mary Clare Haran, with her impeccable diction and her easy charm, was the singer, taking each song as an opportunity not to display her genius but to communicate that of the Gershwins (it being George's centenary). She made sure that we got every witty conceit, delivering the rhyming schemes with particular pointed relish, doing full justice to the variety of the numbers without ever losing her relationship as a performer with us, entering piercingly into the ache at the heart of "The Man I Love" without one second indulging it, and then flicking effortlessly and unjarringly into the elegant exuberance of "It's De-lovely". The bass player, Line Milliman, crept stealthily into each number, impeccably discreet, underpinning with subtle rhythmic flexibility its mood, making it breathe, ebb, flow, flex its muscles.

The team was completed by Richard Rodney Bennett. Completed by? Led by, inspired by, transformed by. To hear this man, the most complete musician of our time, relive and reshape these accompaniments is to hear Gershwin himself; as a composer, Bennett engages with the creative impulse of his great predecessor in a way which is uncanny, heart-stopping, each note at once inevitable and surprising. The inner life of the music informs every note; the why of it determines the how. This is only possible because of his extraordinary technique as a pianist, a springy, singing line, rhythm alive and changing second by second, dynamic control that grades every bar with constantly varying colours. You cannot doubt as you hear him play that this is great music by any standard.

It is when he sings which, from time to time in the course of the evening, he does, that something uncanny occurs. "Sing" is somewhat of an exaggeration: croons, croaks, purrs. Were it not so musical, one would say that he speaks the songs: it is as direct and as clear as the clearest speech. He sang "They Can't Take That Away From Me" with an unexaggerated simplicity which speared the emotion at the centre of the song, love's loss, to its very heart. A slight half-smile always plays about his lips as he sings; this is not method singing. The only person I have heard to compare to his effect on an audience was the late Mabel Mercer, at the end of her life, with virtually no voice at all, turning a lyric with such precision of feeling and diction that each song became a three-act play in miniature, a complete and touching drama which by its very accuracy offered a distillation of universal experience. Here in New York, the original genius of the Gershwins recreated by this extraordinary team of Bennett, Haran and Milliman provided moment after moment of genuinely cathartic emotion, as the words so directly communicated, so perfectly expressed musically, did their necessary healing work: none of us in that tiny room in mid-town Manhattan at midnight could fail to contemplate our own lives hearing "Someone To Watch Over Me": "Tell her to put on some speed/ Follow my lead/ Oh how I need/ Someone to watch over me."

Cabaret, by its nature, communicates: the singer looks into our eyes, the pianist and the bass player watch us, smiling, as they swing their mean riffs; and we are participants, contributors, our plainly visible smiles or tears spurring the performers on. This immediacy, this give and take, this electric flow can so easily get lost in the larger setting, whether in the theatre or the concert hall, the sense that perhaps the show might not go as planned, that the actors or singers or dancers are really here for us, now.

Last year I took part in a concert given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vadim Repin gave a peerless performance of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto; the audience applauded politely. After a couple of bows, he held his hand up, turned to the orchestral violinist and asked them to play a pizzicato figure. He then turned to the violas and cellos and gave them a second, complementary figure. Once their plucking was properly underway he himself played a Catherine's Wheel of a set of variations on the Carnival of Venice. The staid, solid, imperturbable audience were transformed, thrilled, surprised, open-mouthed, beaming: as were the orchestra, who had had no notice of this. It suddenly became a live event. The spirit of cabaret was in the air.

Every performance needs a bit of it, in fact, a lot of it, if we're not to become a mere adjunct of the recorded media.

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