Critics make song and dance over Redmayne’s Cabaret

Marc Brennan

Critics have been making a song and dance over the new West End production of Cabaret, with several awarding five stars in their reviews.

The musical revival, which stars Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, opened at London's Playhouse Theatre on Sunday.

Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph awarded it full marks, saying the show "sends shivers down the spine" and that Redmayne "dazzles" in his role.

"This is it," the writer eulogised. "This is the one."

He labelled British director Rebecca Frecknall's production as "2021's kill-for-a-ticket theatrical triumph".

"Redmayne, returning to theatre after a decade, offers a dazzling vision of the Emcee role, so long associated with Alan Cumming in the [director Sam] Mendes production [from 1993], that makes it freshly glinting and sinister," wrote Cavendish.

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"As Sally Bowles, the English deb turned devil-may-care show-girl, Buckley achieves no smaller feat: she makes you laugh, breaks your heart, has you hanging on her every word – sung or otherwise," he continued. "The Irish actress's period accent and distinctive attitude, nonchalance combined with subtle forcefulness and vulnerability, sets her far from Liza Minnelli in the 1972 film."

Eddie RedmayneMarc Brennan

Frecknall's immersive new staging of the 1966 Kander and Ebb classic, sees the London theatre transformed into the decadent and hedonistic Kit Kat Klub in Berlin during the end of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazis begin to seize power.

The show centres around American writer Clifford Bradshaw (played by It's A Sin star Omari Douglas) and his relations with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles, played by Buckley. All the while, the master of ceremonies, Redmayne, oversees and narrates the action.

The show was described as "a vibrant and frightening revival that belongs to Jessie Buckley" and received five stars from Alexandra Pollard of The Independent.

"Buckley nails the nuances and jarring contradictions of Sally, who wears so many impenetrable layers of bluster and bravado that in lesser hands she could be hard to get a handle on," she wrote. "When Buckley sings Maybe This Time, Sally's only truly vulnerable moment, she keeps her arms crossed for the entire song, the decades of disappointment instead writ large on her face.

"Surely the most powerful moment – and perhaps the best musical-theatre performance I have ever seen live – is Buckley's rendition of the title song. While in many productions (the 1972 film with Liza Minnelli included) it is performed with peppy razzmatazz, here Buckley is a woman on the edge of a breakdown. 'Life is a cabaret old chum,' she bellows, at first dripping with sarcasm and then spitting with fury. It is astonishing."

Omari Douglas, Jessie Buckley, Eddie RedmayneGetty Images

Buckley and Redmayne are best known as stars of the big screen. The former appeared in Wild Rose and Judy, while the latter won the Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and also demonstrated his singing capabilities in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables.

But both are experienced in and evidently pretty adept at treading the boards as well, the critics said.

The Evening Standard's Nick Curtis dished out another five stars, describing the Hollywood pair's new musical as "transformative".

"Wow. Just wow," he wrote.

"Jessie Buckley sings her heart out as a fretful, doomed Sally Bowles: a powerhouse of emotion, she leaves everything on stage. Eddie Redmayne's Emcee is a brilliantly twisted creation, part tribute to Joel Grey's original performance on Broadway and in Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation, part George Grosz grotesque, part baby crocodile.

"The louche, gender-fluid ensemble, writhing in variations of lingerie and lederhosen to Julia Cheng's sinewy choreography, and the female-led orchestra are impeccable. Again, just wow."

He added that Frecknall has proved herself to be "one of our most exciting directors", and one who "draws superb performances from all involved".

There was agreement from WhatsOnstage critic Sarah Crompton, who said the play was "shattering" (in a good way).

"With its starry cast and a director who has made her name rethinking classic plays, this Cabaret always promised to be the show of the season," she opined. "It is that. It's also a show for our times."

Jessie BuckleyMarc Brennan

Cabaret was inspired by a Christopher Isherwood novel – it became a play and then a musical, which has been staged several times over the last six decades.

Arifa Akbar of The Guardian gave the latest incarnation four stars, calling it a "blinder of show", full of "flamboyance, menace and magnetism".

"It does not matter that Redmayne's voice is drowned out by the orchestra at times," she wrote. "He gives an immense, physicalised performance, both muscular and delicate, from his curled limbs to his tautly expressive fingertips.

"Rebecca Frecknall's production on the whole lives up to its hype, magnetising us with flamboyant camp and then delivering menace that feels freshly charged.

"Jessie Buckley, as Sally Bowles, first emerges as a glassy-eyed, underage sex-bomb – an obscene Shirley Temple in a frou-frou dress."

Buckley plays the character "as the opposite of Liza Minnelli's fun-loving chanteuse", the journalist suggested. None more so than during her "breath-taking" performance of the show's title track at the end, which is "full of zombie-like darkness".

'Going to divide opinion'

A tender and tragic sub-plot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider (Liza Sadovy) and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz (Elliot Levey), a Jewish fruit vendor, and their story becomes "this production's heart", Akbar noted.

The "other big star" of the production is stage designer Tom Scutt, according to The Daily Mail's Patrick Marmion, for his "astonishing makeover of the Playhouse Theatre" into "a very swanky speakeasy".

"Scutt's refurb goes right down into the woodwork, with seats in the stalls fitted with ledges for all important 'refreshments'. That also means more leg room… it's like travelling business class, danke schon!" wrote Marmion.

"And above the stalls either side of the small round stage, two dress circles wreathed in tasselled fabrics, peer down on the action.

"We are urged to arrive early to soak up the club's atmosphere, as gaudily made-up actors move through the art deco-styled bars, one carving through the strings of a violin with her bow, another vigorously throttling an accordion and a third blasting smoky atmosphere from a saxophone – while dancers twerk on a balcony or grind hips on a marble bar."

The dance companyMarc Brennan

Writing a four-star review in The Times, Clive Davis concurred that Redmayne – who belts out the opening number Willkommen! – shares the star-of-the-show status with the venue itself.

But he warned that Buckley's portrayal Bowles "is going to divide opinion". Playing the character as "more of a troubled soul," than some of her predecessors, including Jane Horrocks, "splashing acid in all directions", he said.

"Her singing really is unalluring, though," he said. "Maybe This Time falls flat, and the closing rendition of the title number overeggs the tortured expressionist mannerisms."

Cabaret first opened on Broadway in New York City in 1966. And reviewers from across the pond appeared to be equally impressed with the UK's 2021 version.

But for Demetrios Matheou of The Hollywood Reporter, Cabaret is a production that "confidently charts its own course".

"Transforming one of the West End's smaller theatres into an intoxicatingly immersive space, and with its star pairing of Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, this is spectacularly staged, fabulous fun – decadent, delightful and absorbing," he wrote.

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