Willkommen to the Kit Kat Club, where the drinks flow and inhibitions disappear. Yet outside its gilded doors, the rising tides of Nazism threaten everything within. Few musicals capture this precarious balance of indulgence and impending catastrophe like Cabaret. In director Rebecca Frecknall’s thrillingly immersive new production at London’s Playhouse Theatre, we become active witnesses to the hedonistic rebellion unfolding in seedy 1930s Berlin. Reprising his Tony-winning Broadway turn, Eddie Redmayne dazzles as the Kit Kat Club’s enigmatic Emcee, presiding over the bacchanalian chaos and heart-rending humanity unfolding at his feet. Sensory and sublime, this Cabaret ensures the show goes on even as the world plunges into darkness.
By transforming the Playhouse into the Kit Kat Club itself, this Cabaret erases boundaries between show and audience, fiction and reality. Outstanding musical performances and direction deliver both slick spectacle and emotional intimacy within the venue’s immersive 1920s playground. Despite its period setting, Cabaret speaks hauntingly to our current age of anger and fear.
American writer Cliff arrives in Berlin seeking inspiration for his novel, moving in with vivacious entertainer Sally Bowles. At the outrageous Kit Kat Club, Cliff encounters the flamboyant Emcee and his outré coterie of performers. But as Cliff and Sally pursue romance, the upheaval of prewar Germany encroaches, threatening their idyllic refuge.
Rebecca Frecknall’s masterstroke is staging the entire show inside a meticulous reconstruction of the Kit Kat Club, placing the audience at the centre of the storytelling. Anaïs Tondeur’s smouldering design and Neil Austin’s cabaret lighting immerse us in the period atmosphere. The actors freely break the fourth wall, implicating the crowd in the revelry and horror unfolding onstage.
With the Playhouse converted into a 1930s Berlin nightclub, choreographer Julia Cheng fills every space with movement, using cabaret and contemporary dance to convey shifting moods. The Emcee slinks through the crowd, cultivating danger and excitement. Audiences are tempted to indulge without considering the despair lurking at the margins.
Reprising his charismatic Tony-winning turn, Eddie Redmayne utterly seduces as the Kit Kat Club’s flamboyant Emcee. Redmayne locates the character’s vulnerable humanity beneath the malicious glee, leaving the morality of his actions tantalizingly ambiguous. His musical numbers sizzle with fluid physicality and raw vocal power.
As Sally Bowles, Jessie Buckley proves a perfect match for Redmayne, blending gorgeously emotive vocals with aching vulnerability. Their chemistry ignites despite the era’s restraints. Omari Douglas amuses as the affable Cliff, acting as a proxy for the audience’s journey from wonder to disillusionment. Elliot Levey chills as Herr Schultz, a Jew clinging to hope as the Nazi threat mounts.
Set and Costume Design
Anaïs Tondeur’s set design transforms the Playhouse Theatre into the gritty/glamorous Kit Kat Club itself. Red velvet, brass accents, glittering lights and checkerboard floors capture the period aesthetic. Cabaret tables fill the stalls, placing us in the thick of the action. The detailed world transports audiences out of time and space.
Costumes by designer Vicki Mortimer range from Sally’s provocative burlesque looks to the Emcee’s genderfluid ensembles, including suspenders, lingerie and kinky boots. Cliff and Herr Schultz’s humbler attire offset the club’s flashiness. Nazi armbands and anti-Semitic propaganda ominously proliferate as totalitarianism creeps in.
Music and Sound
The renowned orchestra, now visible onstage, blasts out brassy, boozy renditions of iconic numbers like “Willkommen” and “Cabaret.” Conductor Jennifer Ferguson-Cradler maintains vibrancy while allowing space for vocal nuance and emotionality.
Sound designer Nick Lidster surrounds the audience with layered ambient effects – chatter, clinking glasses, distant sirens – creating an immersive atmosphere. The intimate venue makes every cough and scream feel unnervingly real, heightening the historical horrors at hand.
Cultural and Historical Context
The original 1966 Broadway production confronted audiences with the rise of Nazism and antisemitism in Weimar Germany, drawing parallels to racism and prejudice still plaguing 1960s America. In remounting Cabaret for modern London audiences, director Frecknall suggests today’s parallels like rising nationalism are equally impossible to ignore.
Within the safety of the Kit Kat Club, characters indulge without considering consequences, mirroring segments of current society clinging to blissful ignorance or noxious ideologies. However, by the story’s end, the tragedy of their inaction becomes devastatingly clear. Cabaret implicates us all.
Cabaret earned enthusiastic audiences, especially younger theatergoers experiencing this daringly immersive production as their first Cabaret. Its timely themes resonated deeply for many. Some older patrons missed traditional staging motifs, but most relished seeing a classic anew.
Strong word of mouth praising the visceral sound, lighting and performances ensured consistently sold-out houses. Nightly standing ovations confirmed Cabaret’s status as a red-hot West End ticket despite its weighty intellectual substance.
Eddie Redmayne’s “Stunning Emcee” earned raves for its “simmering darkness” (Evening Standard) and Jessie Buckley garnered similar applause for her “knockout” Sally (The Times). Critics uniformly praised Frecknall’s immersive vision as “transportingly decadent” (The Guardian) and divined contemporary parallels throughout.
Some sceptics argued the production further glamorized the risque Kit Kat Club without fully addressing Soy Nazism’s appeal. But most deemed the immersive experience “thrilling and thought-provoking” (The Independent), cementing this Cabaret’s stature as a landmark interpretation.
Drawing audiences into its dangerous embrace, the Playhouse Theatre’s immersive production of Cabaret seduces and unsettles with equal potency. Director Rebecca Frecknall rips down the fourth wall separating the show from reality, individually implicating everyone in the audience through our proximity to the stunning cast and fearless direction.
Eddie Redmayne leads a first-rate company in electrifying musical numbers that expose society’s dark turn with hypnotic energy. Anaïs Tondeur’s set design fully transports us to 1930s Berlin on the brink of collapse. Within the cabaret’s cocaine haze, the Nazi threat can be drowned out momentarily but not ultimately ignored.
Utterly contemporary in its blurring of artifice and realism, this production resonates alarmingly with today’s demagoguery and disinformation. But within its ghosts, Cabaret finds fierce hope through connection and courage. Leaving the Kit Kat Club behind, one dare not look away from the harsh realities waiting outside its doors.