If you know anything about pre-war Berlin it is that it was known for its hedonism and excess. Weimar Berlin was the uninhibited party capital of Europe, offering every perversion, debauchery, depravity and vice imaginable.
So, with the exception of a (very) brief flash of full-frontal male nudity, this touring version of Cabaret, which opened last night at Milton Keynes Theatre, is a rather staid affair. There’s certainly nothing to upset the vicar.
Rufus Norris‘ production of the Kander and Ebb musical enjoyed a sparkling, award-winning run when it was revived in the West End four years ago.
The show was responsible for taking Will Young’s career in a new direction and revealing his talent as a musical theatre star when he played the show’s sinister Emcee.
But the touring production, which gives singer and TV presenter, Louise Redknapp her stage debut, is looking tired and jaded.
Certainly Young has lost some of his original sparkle, not to mention clarity – it was terribly difficult to understand his dialogue last night – while his co-star is completely out of her depth.
Redknapp sings and recites her lines beautifully but is not an actress at all. Full credit to her for wanting to try something new but she’s terribly wooden.
And, and I hate saying this, at 42, she is much too old to be playing the vivacious, impetuous, devil-may-care chanteuse, Sally Bowles.
The Sally I recognise from her creator, the writer, Christopher Isherwood, was young and vibrant, reckless and insouciant.
She fled the stuffy conventionalism of England to throw herself, with wanton enthusiasm, into the wild excesses of Berlin’s louche and seedy underworld that offered her every kind of perversion.
It didn’t matter that she couldn’t sing very well. In the notorious Kit Kat Club she was a star, drinking too much, taking drugs, having sex and enduring endless abortions. The was the original wild child.
Nothing in that description would apply to Redknapp’s one-note performance.
The audience are shielded from her lack of stage experience by director Norris’s decision to use her in profile or upstage. You get to see an awful lot of the back of her head as she constantly turns away from the stalls to deliver her lines.
There is nowhere to hide for her big solo number, Cabaret, and she sings it well – it’s just a pity that designer Katrina Lindsay makes her look faintly ridiculous in an absurd titfer.
Elsewhere Linal Haft reprises his West End role as doomed Jewish fruiterer Herr Schultz and is superb. He is partnered with Susan Penhaligon, as Berlin landlady, Fräulein Schneider, whose career is just as buoyant in her dotage as it was in her youth.
While she makes for a jaunty boarding house owner, turning a blind eye to her tenants’ indiscretions, she’s no singer and struggles through her numbers.
I don’t want to sound entirely damning of this production because there are some great set pieces, and, at the end of the day, you still have an intoxicating and powerful story – but this production lacks verve.
Charles Hagerty is engaging as penniless American author, Cliff Bradshaw and Nicholas Tizzard gives a strong turn as genial Nazi, Ernst Ludwig.
The Emcee’s startling Act I finale, Tomorrow Belongs To Me signals to everyone that the party is over, and the tone of the entire show becomes blacker and more threatening with the cruel, racist, ditty If You Could See Her.
And who isn’t moved by the shock finale that stunned Tuesday night’s opening night audience into silence?
But the modernist metal cage set isn’t that evocative and there are occasions when fancy lighting techniques fail to impress.
The song Two Ladies was completely ruined by the audience being able to see cast members queuing up behind the bead curtain to make their “surprise” entrance in the Emcee’s bed.
Cabaret runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.