Tag Archives: Cabaret

On Variety

Of all the theatrical shows I saw over this Christmas period (People, The Magistrate, Kiss Me Kate), the only one to have any real impact on me was Lucy Prebble’s The Effect; its intricate, moving love story coupled with a complex discussion about the ethics of drugs companies has stayed with me for the last few weeks and doesn’t look like it’ll go away soon. But though there was only one out-and-out ‘theatre’ piece which moved me, I also saw two other things which had their own particular resonance, bringing  to the forefront of my mind thoughts about variety and its potential use as a theatrical form.

The first of these was Frisky and Mannish’s Christmas show at Koko’s. The pair sung their way through their take on popular Christmas songs, introducing a host of cabaret acts in between their numbers (The Boy With Tape on His Face, Piff the Magic Dragon, Bruce Airhead). It was hardly a very cerebrally challenging evening, and didn’t say anything about the world as such (it wasn’t trying to) but that’s not to say it wasn’t gloriously enjoyable (helped by the fact it was almost Christmas and it was my birthday the next day). Either way, the overall feeling was one of celebration, and if there was any overriding worldview which was purveyed it was that nothing is sacred (not even our favourite Christmas songs) and we can subvert anything in the name of comedy and new understandings.

The second show, entitled “The End of the World Show”, was presented by Robin Ince and Brian Cox and was “a summary of all human achievement” and an unashamed “celebration of rationality”. With guests including Ben Goldacre, Adam Rutherford, Scroobius Pip, Kate Tempest, Ben Miller, Steve Coogan, Hugh Grant and Dara O’Briain discussing evolution, space travel, astronomy, chemistry, homeopathy, drugs companies and quantum physics, the overall feeling of this four-and-a-half hour show was of optimism and wonder, encouraging us to think for ourselves and consider the beauty of the world (and universe) around us.

But why am I talking about these productions on a theatre blog? Well, it seems to me that theatre would do well to take a few ideas from the world of variety and cabaret. The idea of a multi-voiced, multi-media production has started to take hold more in recent years with Decade and Greenland leading the way. More recently, authors working alone have begun to incorporate tones of variety into their shows, with Martin Crimp writing in different styles and incorporating music so that we get a wider understanding of the topics of discussion in In The Republic of Happiness.

I know I say it a lot, but in a century in which it has become simple to find out opposing views on something just by Googling and where we are bombarded consistently by opinions on social networks and news sites, the response of a wide range of writers and artists may be a better way of considering the subject matter whether that be a theme, an idea or even a story; plurality must be embraced.

True, different characters can embody different ideas in more straightforward plays, and sometimes the complexity of a well-written script makes us challenge our own opinions so that we can view ideas afresh. But is this really a reflection of our postmodern condition? Is this really sufficient as we move into ever-more complex, confused conditions? How else can we explore these fascinating, necessary and eternal debates?

These are the thoughts swimming around my mind as I begin to edit the texts which have been written for my production of Fascism Anyone?, in which we’re hoping to interrogate the way we understand fascism in 2013. We already have a variety of responses, including black comedies, Beckettian shorts, monologues and raps, and we’ll be including music and movement, but does this count as variety? And if not, can (or should) we be doing more to incorporate a wider variety of artforms?

I’m fully aware that Frisky, Mannish, Brian and Robin weren’t necessarily trying to put across the kind of one-theme response I’ve been considering, but the choice of response tells us a lot, as they understand that looking at particular ideas in different ways can be more engaging, complex and, in a way, democratic. Which seems like the ideal way to combat fascism theatrically.

“The Ugly Sisters”

at St Stephens, Saturday 18th August 2012

It’s not as if the story of Cinderella needs a reboot. So many reinterpretations, reimaginings and retellings of the tale have been made that you’d think there would be no room for any more. The central premise behind The Ugly Sisters is one which has surely been observed before, but Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen add RashDash’s trademark charm and energy, creating something which turns the Cinderella story on its head in an hour of pure joy.

The Ugly Sisters (“reclaiming the word”) are here a cabaret duo who want to tell the story from their point of view. In their opinion, it was all Cinderella’s fault (here named Arabella). In this telling, her materialism and the sycophancy bestowed upon her by her stepmother are the truly ugly aspects, causing resentment in Pearl and Emerald. After appearing on a reality TV show to win the Prince’s heart, they are turned against each other in true manipulative Big Brother style, causing the viewing public to turn against them. The show is a clear swipe at celebrity culture and commodity fetishism.

The way in which the piece is presented is its strongest aspect; the use of a cabaret-style setting means the sisters can address us and talk through their story methodically. Along with their backing band, they sing, dance and DJ their way through some toe-tapping music with smart lyrics, interspersed with digressions and duologues. It’s ideal for a late night show, and means the slightly amateur nature of the presentation makes sense. The final moment sees Greenland and Goalen appearing on stage, botox-ed and bewigged, the recogniseable Ugly Sisters of pantomimes.

Though the music is performed well by a three-piece band and sung with stunning versatility by the sisters, the characterisations of all involved is a little weak, making it hard to buy fully the story which is being told. Band members who play other characters in the story are a tad wooden (though this could be a conscious decision), and more could be done with these sections of the piece. Greenland and Goalen are hilarious at points, and it’s clear they’re attempting to show the sisters as simply misunderstood and innocent, but the fact they are in a cabaret setting is not fully exploited; it’s difficult to tell where the characters’ ideas for a piece of theatre end and the actors’ begins.

Regardless of these small issues, The Ugly Sisters achieves its goal of turning the story of Cinderella on its head whilst raising a smile. Some clever lyrics and ideas test our intellectual muscles, while we sit back and enjoy the show. RashDash aren’t doing anything revolutionary or mind-blowing, but my god they do it well.

“Cabaret”

music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 2nd June 2011

The world is a miserable place. Most of us with an ounce of wisdom can agree on that. But the creators of so many musicals seem to dodge away from difficult subjects, preferring to take the easy way out by showing a happy-clappy version of the world in which everyone lives happily ever after. Callum Runciman and Lilith Brewer’s production of Cabaret could not be further from this trend, portraying a gloriously pessimistic view of humanity during its darkest hour which at once provokes and delights.

We are in – unsurprisingly – a cabaret club in 1930s Berlin, and the American writer Clifford Bradshaw turns up hoping to find inspiration for a new novel. He meets and falls in love with the British Sally Bowles, and they live together in a boarding house presided over Fraulein Schneider, who is in turn in love with the Jewish Herr Schultz. As the various couples face troubles of their own, the impending Nazi takeover becomes more obvious. The whole enterprise is overseen by the omnipresent Emcee, here shown to be just as much a creator as a commentator on the events of the story.

The most striking aspect of this production is its gorgeous aesthetic. The film-noir inspired design is juxtaposed with the red curtain and yellow lights, and forces the Nazi Swastikas to stand out. The colour of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz’ relationship is emphasised, they being the only ones to dress in colour.

This production is both sexy and sensitive. Musical numbers such as ‘Two Ladies’ are simply hilarious, and Shultz’ optimistic faith in humanity is one of the few redeeming features of this society. The bold, brash choices made at the closing of the first and second acts send shivers down the spine. We are sat in Cabaret-style set-up, forcing us to consider what we take as truth and what is illusion.

Each and every performer has utter conviction in their roles; even the chorus of Kit Kat boys and girls are utilised well. Stewart Clarke’s portrayal of the right-wing Ernst Ludwig is just enough of a caricature to remain funny, but still has enough humanity for us to follow his path. Edward Davis and Claire Furner as Schultz and Schneider both give perfectly nuanced performances, and as the relatively bland Bradshaw, Alastair Hill injects some genuine emotion. Tom Syms as the androgynous Emcee is nothing but class; at one point he is a droll narrator, and when in drag looks like a cross between Marilyns Manson and Monroe. The show is pretty much stolen, however, by Charlotte Cowley’s portrayal of Sally Bowles, with stiff upper lip and conserved emotions. When she sings the title number ‘Cabaret’, she proves herself to be an upcoming star of the stage.

This production of Cabaret is one of the best musicals I have ever seen. The theatricality of the sexual Kit Kat Club is juxtaposed carefully with the raw emotion in the more private scenes. With wonderfully original choreography by Katie Wignall and blinding lighting by Sam Daughty, the musical numbers don’t detract from but add to the action, and Kate Meadows’ musical direction adds another layer of emotion to the production. Cabaret makes some bold moves, and Runciman and Brewer’s direction draws out some of the key themes in the narrative. The fact we are sat mere metres away from the action adds to the drama, and for the two and a half hours we spend in the space, this is a far better alternative to sitting alone in our room.