Yesterday (it’s 1:00 a.m. here) we splurged in a way we rarely do, going for the full over-the-top West End immersive theatre experience of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (Playhouse Theatre).
There are no pictures to share from inside the venue, because no photography of any kind is allowed. In fact, upon entry the usher puts a sticker over each patron’s cell phone camera – they’re serious about not wanting the show’s surprises revealed on social media. So instead , I’m including a picture of what I wore to the theatre. We didn’t pack fancy theatre clothes in our 3-month carry-ons, so, while I knew Ted would look natty in his navy travel pants and white Columbia shirt, I went shopping for something to wear with my navy leggings. I found a sparkly Josef Ribkoff tunic in a charity shop in Blackheath, an Italian-made green blazer and a pair of green crystal earrings in a different charity shop here in Greenwich, a green glass bead necklace at the Greenwich Vintage Market, and a soft warm scarf made from recycled fibres at Primark. Total dress-up cost £28 ($40 CAD/$30USD). There was nothing I could do about shoes though, except wash the white soles on my navy trainers.
I’ll do my best to describe our evening, but first…. tonight was courtesy of a completely unexpected windfall inheritance from Ted’s Uncle Bud, his mom’s younger brother. I only met Bud a few times, and always in the company of Ted’s Aunt Jean. Bud was unmarried; we often wondered if he was gay at a time when it would have been too difficult to reveal. In his 80’s, he met someone at his retirement home and married her. We understand they were happy, and he gained an adult daughter in the process, but we never met his wife. When he died, the last of 5 siblings to do so, his small estate was split up between his 11 surviving nieces and nephews, of which Ted was one. We shared Ted’s portion with our two sons, leaving us enough to do something special. I’d like to think Uncle Bud would have approved of our choice; the times I met him I had the sense that he just needed someone to encourage him to experience the world.
We love the musical Cabaret and have seen several versions, but this latest West End production is close to our vision of what the show should be like: gritty, shocking, moving, and a little desperate. The original cast featured Eddie Redmayne as the emcee and Jessie Barkley as Sally Bowles, but since April the two main roles have been taken over by Fra Fee and Amy Lennox, who are both BRILLIANT. We were completely hooked when we watched Amy Lennox’ rendition of “Cabaret” for the Olivier Awards (Britain’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards) ceremony on YouTube. You should definitely check it out. Amy Lennox Cabaret. This iteration of Cabaret, which opened last November, just won 7 Oliviers, including best musical revival.
Showtime was 7:30, but we were instructed to arrive at exactly 6:15 p.m., not before, at the basement Stage Door. The instructions in the email sounded secretive and a little dangerous, which was entirely the intent. After all, we were stepping into the period just following the brief “Golden Twenties” of the Weimar Republic, when the official German government was still staying out of the bedrooms of the nation, but a dark undertone was seeping into politics as the Nazis were quietly gaining influence. From what we learned in museums in Berlin, the Weimar Republic never really stood a chance, since those running it weren’t totally committed; many of them were still monarchists at heart. Nonetheless, after the immediate post World War I years of crazy inflation and personal sacrifice, cabarets were places where people could indulge all their senses, with a little bit of a speakeasy vibe.
After entering the stage door, we walked past a tiny bar window where we were each given a shot of Schnapps, and then continued up the stairs past scantily-clad dancers lounging, stretching, flirting, and pouting, and a live cabaret band behind a metal bead curtain: a piano, accordion, clarinet and violin, all played by lingerie-clad, dramatically made-up female musicians, finally reaching the Gold Bar.
In this dimly lit space the decor, as the name implies, was all gold. There were niches where dancers gyrated and musicians played, and a balcony over the bar where more dancers strutted and performed. Some of the dancers were female, some male, and some completely androgynous in appearance. All of them managed to give off a world-weary mix of sensuality and boredom (picture someone doing strip-tease moves while checking their nail polish). It really set the mood for the evening.
We found our way into the “stalls”, to our third row from the stage cabaret table for two, which was decorated with a lamp with a globe-shaped brass “net” shade and a telephone, plus a built-in champagne chiller.
As the pre-show entertainment of musicians and dancers continued around us, we were served a gourmet cold 3-course light dinner in a stainless steel tiered tiffin box: thinly sliced vegetables with smoked carrot hummus, toasted seeds and crushed herbs, served with a soft pretzel; cold chunks of Coronation chicken with golden raisins, mango yogurt dressing, pickled red onion & crunchy cabbage; and a dessert of lemon posset with English raspberries, raspberry gel & caramelized white chocolate – all accompanied by a bottle of Möet & Chandon Imperial Champagne. I realized that I had never had real French champagne before, just lots (and lots) of Sekt, Cava, and Prosecco. It was delicious, and served in true to the period 1920’s style coupe glasses.
And then the show started – or more accurately for us, continued.
The show was performed in the round, using a stage that had a centre circle-within-a-circle that could raise to create a tiered-cake shape, but there were no “sets” at all – no walls or furniture of any kind. Each scene was created by the actors themselves: the club, the train, the various boarding house rooms, and the street.
It’s interesting how different songs can be when sung with different emphasis. Compared to the Joel Grey/Liza Minelli movie, this play’s songs were less “cabaret” and more personal and emotional.
Despite how terrific the two leads were, I think my favourite character was Fraulein Schneider, played by Vivien Parry. Her portrayal of an older woman, a self-styled “survivor” of war and revolution, giving up her last chance for love in favour of self-preservation was heartbreaking . Watching her finally opening up to love with her Jewish boarder (the charming widower Herr Schultz), and then succumbing to fear of Nazi repercussions and breaking off their engagement, ending with her song “What Would YOU Do?”, was an emotional journey, as well as a statement on the way many Germans reacted to what was happening around them.
Fraulein Schneider’s was certainly not the only emotional journey we were taken on. We got to witness Sally Bowles’ self-destructive tendencies, and American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Omar Baroud)’s struggle with his homosexuality and the repercussions of sticking up for his political beliefs.
By the end of the show we were both completely sated (with food and drink … there was a lovely chocolate brownie for each of us waiting at our table after the interval) and completely drained emotionally. We were also on our feet applauding.
Thank you Uncle Bud!