Michael Coveney: Come to the Cabaret again, with Doddy on music hall
It's wilkommen, bienvenu - bordering on deja vu - all over again at the Savoy Theatre, where Rufus Norris' revival of Cabaret six years ago at the Lyric has been refitted with Will Young as the emcee and Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles.
Having missed out on the Press performances last week, I hurried along to yesterday's matinee and joined quite a decent, enthusiatic throng in the stalls and dress circle (the grand circle and balcony were closed, all cheap seats - £35 is what passes for cheap these days - relocated in the posh areas).
As usual in ATG theatres, there was plenty of Veuve Cliquot on offer, but the coffee machine had broken. Not only that, it hadn't been fixed. I followed the barman's advice and went round the corner to Pret a Manger, bienvenu, wilkommen, on the Strand and contemplated the gloomy alternatives across the road: Paul Merton filling in at the Vaudeville, The Bodyguard looming at the Adelphi.
I'd definitely made the right choice. Although I never really liked Norris's over obvious approach to the incipient Nazism in the show, there is a dreadful consistency in Katrina Lindsay's design which mobilises the steel single beds of Sally, Clifford Bradshaw (an excellent Matt Rawle) and Fraulein Schneider (the wonderful Sian Phillips) as poignantly complementary scenery to the gantries, platforms and display cabinets of the seedy, sexy Kit Kat Klub.
And of course if it's bottoms you're after, this is the show for you, not to mention the black leather and lingerie. Although the radicalism of the re-think is not fully realised in the lead performances, you have to tip your hat to producer Bill Kenwright for at least following Norris down his path of stern resistance to previous incarnations, on stage and film.
It just seems a bit cruel to give Michelle Ryan Liza Minelli's steamy, stomping torch song, "Maybe This Time," when she cannot possibly encompass its musical and dramatic demands; but then she recovers pretty well in time for the title song. She's certainly frightfully English, as Anna Maxwell Martin was, but in a Julie Andrews sort of way. Gin for this girl? Dry white wine at a pinch.
Of course the Emcee is rather sidelined in the movie, but every other stage production has to suffer the memory of Joel Grey, who was simply brilliant in the original, though Matt Wolf told me last night that he seemed to have fallen out of love with the role by the time he came to appear in a later, lacklustre revival.
Will Young does very well indeed, which is not the same as saying that he's very good indeed. He's fine, but his acting is clumsy and his timing badly off. He's not a killer stage actor, which is what you need for the emcee, though he does all the grimacing and buttock patting well enough, and there's a great sequence - chiming with the bedroom, nightmare scenario - when he wanders through Cliff's room in a trance, singing quietly the other song from the movie, "I Don't Care Much."
Best of all are the scenes between Phillips's Schneider and Linal Haft's Herr Schultz, the fruiterer who brings the old landlady a pineapple (complete with unnecessary Hawaian dancing girls sashaying on from the wings at the drop of a hint in the lyric) and finds his windows broken and store disrupted as the storm clouds gather.
The detail and charm of these two lovely performances are in marked, deliberate contrast to the rampaging nastiness of the rest. The comic momentum of songs like "The Money Song" and "If You Could See Her" is still fatally scuppered by over production, but the act one finale, "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," the Nazi drinking song, is brilliantly and chillingly done as a Tyrolean puppet show, Will Young pulling all the strings before a tiny black moustache is slapped on his face as the curtain falls.
Cabaret's only playing at the Savoy for 15 weeks, and it will be interesting to see if Bill Kenwright tries to keep it running beyond that with more celebrity casting, now that Blood Brothers is coming to the end of its second very long life in the West End in the second week of November. It's unlike him to give up too easily, and he does of course help out theatre owners who have been let down elsewhere, which explains the slightly depressing reappearance of Dreamcoats and Petticoats at the Wyndham's.
I did, however, quite enjoy Dreamcoats when I saw it at the Playhouse years ago, and the West End is not obliged to be innovative or surprising all the time. It's obliged, in the first place, to survive and make money. Otherwise, it will go the way of the music hall. And no-one knows that better than Ken Dodd, who has written a rave review of former prime minister John Major's new book, My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall.
Simon Callow loved the book, too, and his review appeared in The Guardian. Dodd's, amazingly, appears in Prospect magazine, a high quality intellectual monthly with a small but perfectly formed (and highly influential) readership.
It's as though Bruce Forsyth had written a column about ballroom dancing for The Economist. Our dearest Doddy, on this evidence of his critical writing skills, should stick to the night job; but it's still a lovely brew of potted history, compliments and old gags.
"I think slaving over a hot audience is a wonderful way of earning a crust," writes the squire of Knotty Ash, ruminating on all the great stars Major describes and indeed the nature of stardom itself. What makes a star, Doddy? "Nobody really knows... most entertainers have skill, talent, polish, but the greats, the stars, have magic. Charisma, magnetism, call it what you will - it's still magic."