Girls performing risqué numbers in corsets has become a familiar sight in the past few years so it’s refreshing to see a company actually attempting to recreate a true early 20th century German cabaret rather than the watered down version we’re more commonly offered. From the moment you enter the theatre the dancing girls greet and seat you, flirting and chatting in character, creating the interaction this format demands. At the back of the stage are some nicely hung red swags with a plush bow in the middle from under which our Emcee (Daniel McCallum) emerges, wearing a fetching silver waistcoat and black neck ruff. All the actors have whitened faces, red lips and rouged cheeks, with eye shadow matching the coloured highlights of their costumes, reminiscent of the theatre scenes in the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, to which this production obviously nods its head. Don’t expect to be a casual observer here, especially if you’re at the end of a row. Leggy, pouting blondes thrust themselves in faces and fondle knees, much to the delight of some and embarrassment of others (and ladies, don’t think you’re safe just because you are female).
Opening with a ditty entitled “Welcome to Berlin” the cast show off their talents and the ensemble numbers throughout the piece are strong and well choreographed. We are insulted, then introduced to the characters, by the Emcee who is delightfully charismatic, confident and commanding as demanded by the role. ‘Schitler’ (Theo Knowles) and ‘Hohm’ (Frankie Wilde) provide the male balance to the dancing girls, with short duologues mocking fanatical naziism. There are smutty songs aplenty. And there is a ‘doctor’, with various ‘PHD’s taking data from each character. It’s advertised as ‘a slice of 1930s Berlin’ and that is precisely what is delivered.
There are some small problems though. Firstly, and I feel a little uncomfortable saying this given the nature of the Fringe and choices available to smaller theatre companies, the venue is entirely wrong for a show like this. We are sitting in rows in a room in a hotel, most likely used normally as a meeting room, with a floor level thrust stage. While this easy access to the audience might aid the sense of intimacy the company want to create, it does make the show feel more like a play rather than a true cabaret experience. It also means that some of the time the performers have their backs to a third of the crowd. While the projection and diction of the actors is excellent the room is not designed to carry sound, so some people will miss jokes and lyrics. There is so much potential in the subject matter, so many themes to explore: the Weimar cabaret was shocking in its subversiveness. However, this show over-simplifies ideology and takes the safe route of documenting rather than commenting on the political. The show starts with a bang and plenty of energy, but loses momentum and fizzles out toward the end, relying too heavily on double entendre and sexual ambiguity. Calling the show ‘a slice’ is accurate: with a running time of approximately 50 minutes and so many characters they haven’t allowed themselves space to really develop ideas thoroughly. There is an attempt to create an unsettling atmosphere reflecting the era, but this is too obvious and brash to be truly effective. Nevertheless this is an enjoyable romp in a 1930s Berlin cabaret; stylish, and engaging even if a little light on substance.