It's 40 years since Cabaret first erupted on Broadway when the Kander-Ebb musical, superbly staged by Hal Prince, was a major hit. It still is.
This latest version arrived in London at the Lyric to acclaim - though how some younger reviewers can say it is one of the best ever productions is bemusing. It's effective, tight, and looks good. But Cabaret is a show that comes with so many shadows - all the past productions plus the memorable movie provide flashes in the mind: thus directors feel an urgent need (or excuse?) to make it 'different'. You appreciates that freshing-up requirement, and director Rufus Nerris has done his best to do just that. Often he succeeds.
A lean, hard version, with minimal sets and stage furniture, it's designed by Katrina Lindsay. The ever-memorable songs are well sung, though despite all modern technical assistance, an otherwise good orchestra at the back of the stage sometimes engulfs the words. There's a real sense of Berlin the Bad, about to be wiped squeaky clean by Hitler's vile 'solutions': a final tableau of naked bodies under a gas-oven shower underlines the fast approaching crisis for Jews, gipsies, Socialists and undesirables - like the Kit Kat club crowd.
Casting is uneven - as the American in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin, Michael Hayden is stolid, acts well, but needs more wide eyed warmth. Sally Bowles is played by Anna Maxwell Martin - and she isn't quite right. She doesn't have a gamine look, a sense of a loopy English girl, essentially naive, unleashed to have fun in the boisterous boites of 1930's Berlin. She's suitably vulnerable though, sings some of her songs very well and can be compelling.
As the all-important MC James Dreyfuss has done rather to much of this kink stuff. He parades around in the usual weird underwear but although very out front he doesn't really give the bleak, manic portrait the famous part needs. Indeed he can be boringly predictable. Best are the two older characters, Frau Schneider (Sheila Hancock) and her adoring Jewish grocer (Geoffrey Hutchings). They provide a depth and awareness contrasting with the crazy shenanigans of a chorus of lively dancers who move well and look good in the inevitable fetish gear. They try hard to be sexy and naughty, but it's tough capturng the hardness and essential seediness of the Kit Kat Klub. All play several roles: an innovation is that several of them appear nude.
Cabaret is a good example of the lively London theatre scene however, taut and touching, funny and fast. If it is your first dip into the between-the-wars brantub of this famous musical, you should really enjoy it.