It should not be underestimated what Will Young achieves as Emcee in the current West End revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. In a sense the director of the show, Rufus Norris, has greedily capitalised on Young’s popstar status and turned his winning appeal into a secret weapon for what is surely the most unflinching rendition of the show that we’ve yet seen in the capital. Forget the skimpy lederhosen, the divinely decadent poses, the camp innuendo, the coy audience interaction – it’s Young’s killer smile that Norris deploys to lethal effect as it widens to accommodate those exaggerated German vowels and then, just when you feel secure in its jokey good nature and charm, twists by degrees into a grimace. In a sense we feel comfortable in his company, welcomed in every language – his fans are won over by his just being there, gamely going where he hasn’t gone before – until that moment at the end of act one where his chaste rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” grows just that little bit too insistent and someone paints a little moustache on his upper lip.
And so we look at him a little differently in act two – warily in that contentious number “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” (she wouldn’t look Jewish at all) where Norris deflects the ugliness of the song’s sentiment by showing only a shadow play of “her” – until finally the screen comes down and what you see is not the befrocked ape you expect to see but still more shockingly a girl in an ill-fitting institutionalised coat bearing a yellow star.
From that point on we laugh differently, too, and when Young comes downstage ranting and cajoling in a jump suit replete with Nazi armband the hideous distortion of him, physically and vocally, is complete. It’s hard now to laugh at all. If you doubted the effectiveness of what he had given us up to this point – and I certainly didn’t – then you could no longer do so. Attention was going to be paid – or else.
It’s a clever show weaving the pretense of the Kit Kat Club through the grim reality of real life beyond its walls. And this production makes you realise how sanitised – though hugely entertaining – the movie was. Michelle Ryan’s Sally Bowles cleverly pits a powerful voice against the idea that Sally is anything but a finished artist. She sings with a kind of desperation which is very effective in countering the faux charm of her cut-glass Chelsea accent. The alternative Krystallnacht. And I should, of course, mention the extraordinary Sian Phillips’ Fräuline Schneider who so movingly nails the scene of her terrible dilemma: “What Would You Do?”
Norris’ final image is deeply disturbing. No musical ever ended as quietly or as grimly. But as Will Young turns his back on the audience for the last time he too is victim of a terrible irony that it would be wrong of me to reveal. Go to the Cabaret.