Compared to Anna Maxwell Martin, Liza Minelli is but a thimble.
EDITWhich, expanded, is to say that I saw Cabaret at the Lyric last night. This is a decadent and unsettling production of a musical which I did not know well beyond familiarity with a few of its songs - 'Cabaret', 'The Money Song', 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' - and clips of Liza Minelli singing Sally Bowles in the film version. So it's really unfair of me to compare Anna Maxwell Martin with Liza Minelli, given that I haven't yet seen the film, and as Sally's nationality was changed from British to American for the film they are playing characters with different backgrounds. But Anna Maxwell Martin, a favourite actress of mine since His Dark Materials, is again a revelation here. She can sing with the deep-throated roar of a chanteuse of the jazz era, and with the game fragility of Sally, a character who is a warning to all self-dramatizers everywhere. We can never be sure of any truth with Sally other than that she can't see any existence for herself outside the Weimar Republic Berlin she is addicted to; she has obscured her background from herself as much as from those she meets (her accent wavers between the clipped and nasal fashionable upper-class variant of received pronunciation of the 1920s, and a cockney which could be just as affected) and her identity is steadily worn away by drink and drugs and denial. Anna Maxwell Martin makes it utterly believable that Cliff Bradshaw (an American novelist played by Michael Hayden here; in the film the character is Brian Roberts played by Michael York) could take this time-bomb in, because she and her Sally are fatally charming, whether begging for champagne as a small figure who should be dwarfed by her fur coat, but isn't, or clinging in childlike affection to Cliff as he in turn tries to type his novel on their single bed.
This is the second stage production I've been to with my sister in the past few months which has involved watching simulated sex. (The previous one was the ENO/Mark Morris King Arthur.) Almost the first thing the sexually complex Cliff sees when he reaches Fraulein Schneider's rooms is full-frontal male nudity as one of Fraulein Kost's many 'nephews' - most of them sailors - is banished from the house. This sets the tone for a highly sexualised first half, where the sexually liberated but also sexually decadent character of the Berlin of the late 1920s and early 1930s is ascendant. The potentially touching 'It Couldn't Please Me More' between Fraulein Schneider (Sheila Hancock) and Herr Schultz (Geoffrey Hutchings), a song about the gift of a pineapple from ageing greengrocer Schulz to similarly elderly Schneider, which she recognizes as a gift a young man might give to a girl he is courting, is undercut by one of the cast coming on in the back of the stage wearing a garland of tropical flowers and performing a mock-Hawaiian dance. For the second half, though, the penises, real or fake, are trousered in; the fetish gear of the Kit Kat Klub is less evident; James Dreyfus's muted performance as the Emcee comes into its own as his carefree and careless world is boxed in; and the Nazis glimpsed at the end of the first half as Sally sleeps singing 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' are revealed as the benefactors of the unwitting Cliff, whose former male lover Bobby is beaten up and whose facilitator, Ernst (Andrew Maud) persuades the newly-engaged Fraulein Schneider to end her relationship with Herr Schultz because he is Jewish. Cliff escapes back to America, but not before he has attempted to strike back and become the victim of physical violence from the Nazis himself in a brutally realised dance sequence; Sally swaps her fur coat for a black smock, the abortion of the baby Cliff wants to bring up with her, and a resolution to die before she gets old; and we leave the performers of the cabaret to the hiss of the gas chambers.
The staging is claustrophobic, earthy, and non-realistic, with violet, purple and black dominant; James Dreyfus performs the opening number, 'Wilkommen', through a hole in the curtain styled after a camera shutter, a nod to the show's ultimate literary source. The most real place is probably the Kit Kat Klub itself. I've heard that the original Broadway production in the 1960s clearly delineated between 'real' and 'imagined' scenes, with any Kit Kat Klub scenes performed from behind a screen of tinsel taking place in the imagination; forty years on, the audience is past such conventions, so the concentrated pathos of Sally moving from her bed into the imagined club during 'Cabaret' (if this is indeed what happened) is instead thrown forward and back into the scenes surrounding it. This isn't a bad thing necessarily.
We watched the show from the balcony, which was a long way up; but this performance reached us there, and is well worth seeing.