There’s always been a touch of decadence about Berlin, and Cabaret perfectly encapsulates the seamy, hedonistic nightlife the city became famous for.
Based on the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, the musical follows the thrilling highs and desperate lows of the last days of Weimar Germany, that interwar period between Germany’s defeat in World War I in 1918 and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
Set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the jaw-dropping nightlife scene at the seedy Kit Kat Klub. The story centres around American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles.
The original 1966 Broadway production became a smash hit and has since been performed around the world in various incarnations, as well as inspiring the iconic 1972 film with Liza Minnelli. We’re all familiar with the songs: Money Makes the World Go Round, Maybe This Time, Cabaret and more.
Written more than 50 years ago, Cabaret famously deals with extreme political themes: antisemitism, far-right politics, and how far our political landscape can change in a short amount of time.
But no matter how familiar you are with the musical, the latest version at The Palace, which follows two smash hit West End runs at The Lyric and The Savoy theatres, still has the power to surprise, entertain, enthral and ultimately move us.
Isherwood himself coined the phrase “smoky sexuality” to describe the heady atmosphere of the period.
And this production perfectly encapsulates that, from the provocative costumes and aggressively sexual gyrations of the dancers to the casual drug use and promiscuity. This is no tame burlesque show.
Not to mention some unexpected full-frontal nudity, which provoked a gasp or two from the audience.
John Partridge, winner of Celebrity MasterChef, known to TV audiences as EastEnders’ Christian Clarke and one of West End theatre’s most prolific leading men, stars as Emcee, guiding us through the story.
He throws himself into the role, a showman and an orator, all acid wit and caustic charisma with a hint of menace, and holds up a mirror reflecting the action onstage as well as the audience reaction.
Kara Lily Hayworth stars as Sally Bowles, bringing her own natural charm to the role. And they’re joined by Anita Harris, who first rose to fame as a singer in the 1960s and has won over fans across the decades both on screen and stage.
But it’s not all glamour and decadence, and this is where Cabaret still has the power to shock.
The culmination of Act One is a performance of Tomorrow Belongs to Me which left the audience holding our collective breath.
The writing is on the wall for the uninhibited, anything-goes golden age of Berlin.
It’s as we hurtle into Act Two, with the inevitable decline of Berlin club culture and the rise of the Nazi Party with all its sinister ramifications for key characters, that this production really excels.
On the train to Paris, Cliff begins to write his novel, reflecting on his experiences: “There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies… and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany… and it was the end of the world.”
Cabaret aims to be a feast for the eyes, but also to challenge its audience. A standing ovation suggests that this production very much succeeded.
Cabaret is at The Palace Theatre until Saturday 29th February 2020.