Tag Archives: Rebecca Frecknall

“Cabaret” at the Kit Kat Club

Star billing and the refurbishment of the Playhouse Theatre for the production make this revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical a very expensive hot ticket.

The price of theatre is an issue as complicated as it is frequently discussed. To be fair, few industries care as much about access as the theatre. As sales show, people are willing to pay. And you can get comfortable £30 seats here… if you are lucky. But with cabaret table places (plus a dining option) costing £325, it’s hard not to question if any show could be worth that price.

And the changes to the theatre are pretty underwhelming. If you like the immersive thing, then entering by the stage door into a bar isn’t going to cut it. The table seating, while nice for some, is hardly new. Thankfully, beyond the hype is a strong production of a great musical. That you could see several shows just as good for same money isn’t the fault of the creative team.

Director Rebecca Frecknall handles staging in the round well and keeps the action moving with an impressive attention to detail. The older couple in the story are given their due. Played exceptionally well by Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey, the doomed affair between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz becomes the emotional heart of the show. But I’m guessing their performances might not be what you’re interested in?

Cabaret is about two – maybe three – iconic roles. Stepping into big shoes are Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee, Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles and Omari Douglas as wannabe writer Clifford. If you’ve paid the money, you do get to the see them up close and personal. All three are good, very good. Redmayne’s Emcee is a conductor and a conjuror of events, always in control. Buckley’s impassioned performance is as brave as Douglas’s is cleverly restrained. Both Redmayne and Buckley are a little too keen to differentiate themselves from previous portrayals of their characters – some lines are delivered with odd inflections as a result. But both sound great and have true star quality.

CABARET-The-Company-Photo-Marc-Brenner
The company performing Julia Cheng’s choreography

For surprises, though, it is Tom Scutt’s design that grabs attention (it aids Redmayne enormously) with a gothic feel that’s both effective and original. Meanwhile, Julia Cheng’s choreography is the real star. Movement is aggressive throughout, the performers frequently reduced to frightening and dramatic marionettes.

Credit to Frecknall – Cabaret isn’t fun for your money and there’s no concession to pleasing the well-paying crowd. Remember, Joe Masteroff’s book for the stage is even darker than the famous film, with a keen eye on poverty as well as Nazism. Buckley does particularly well in showing Bowles’ desperation. Frecknall looks at the exploitation behind the fun from the start. But, for at least part of the show, should some of the characters be less aware of how grim things are? When Clifford says that the party is over, it’s jarring that, in this production, the fun never actually begins.

Until 1 October 2022

www.theplayhousetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Three Sisters” at the Almeida Theatre

Cordelia Lynn’s new version of Chekhov’s masterpiece is bold and fresh to the point of being revelatory. Lynn enforces the play’s bleakness, with plenty of espousals that life is pointless, yet presents us with a perky trio who are approachable, recognisable and funny. There’s no shying away from the fact that Chekhov’s heroines have an air of the elite; you might ask them to check their privilege. But Lynn makes the struggles of each – in love and work, with the health of all three suffering – relatable, thought-provoking and moving.

Taking the three iconic sisters way past stereotype is not an easy task. Lynn’s muscular dialogue is well served by three performers who are excellent; it’s pleasingly impossible to single out either Pearl Chanda, Patsy Ferran or Ria Zmitrowicz, who all work well together. It’s fantastic to see how funny each can be in each character’s own particular way. Note the difference with the role of their sister-in-law, vividly portrayed Lois Chamimba, which comes into focus wonderfully: she’s a character we laugh at rather than with. Lynn has done justice to the play’s male characters, too. Her version retains some dignity for Elliot Levey’s cuckolded teacher, has sympathy (more than I) for the sister’s brother that Freddie Meredith does well with and uses Alan Williams’ Doctor to further focus themes. The role of Irena’s suitor is the big surprise, though; the character’s optimism comes to the fore as a foil… for a while. It’s a bonanza for Shubham Saraf, who takes the part.

Shubham Saraf and Ria Zmitrowicz

With superb performances and an exciting text, reservations risk sounding trivial, as they become matters of taste rather than criticism. The usually excellent designer Hildegard Bechtler has left the show looking a touch too modish. While not specifically updated or relocated, these three sisters are out of time and place, no matter how often Moscow is mentioned so all the mismatched chairs and Anglepoise lamps, along with the final scene played on bare ground (a big effort for little result), make the aesthetic too contemporary. And might director Rebecca Frecknall’s work also be a touch heavy handed? It’s easy to see the temptation. Several scenes are “all a bit strange”, with moments of staccato delivery and portentousness. Maybe Lynn, like the character Masha, is impatient with the “talk talk talk” in the play – she brings out ideas with sometimes blunt directness. Perhaps Frecknall should have tried to inject more subtlety? Alternatively, she reflects Lynn’s forcefulness and does justice to her vision. It’s a fine line that makes for a pleasing debate.

Until 2 June 2019

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Summer and Smoke” at the Almeida Theatre

The youthful courtships in Tennessee Williams’ plays are usually things of the past – recounted by his formidable heroines. Here the action unfolds before us and whether the affair between minister’s daughter Alma and her next-door neighbour John will evolve is filled with an exciting tension… if you’re an optimist or haven’t seem much Williams. Sense-talking Alma is hugely sympathetic, while John is sensitive and passionate, a doctor making a mess of his youth. Presented as two extremes of spirituality and physicality, a compromise between them would be good for both. It’d be nice if it worked out.

There isn’t a party at the end, sorry, and the 1948 play’s reputation isn’t much celebrated either. But this production is so strong it takes us well into the second act to see why. After an electrifying argument as John’s father lies murdered (I didn’t say there was no melodrama), the play drags its feet, harps on about unrequited love and becomes, well, mopey. Alma was, reportedly, Williams’ favourite heroine – her fire and fierce intelligence makes this understandable – but while the performance here, from Patsy Ferran, does her justice, Alma deserves better than the end she had written for her.

Unlike the play, the production is faultless. Rebecca Frecknall has directed the piece before and her close knowledge proves invaluable. Matthew Needham delivers a fine performance as John, who is filled with sexual frustration and confusion. Despite cruelties and misogynistic remarks, the attraction is clear. Using the play’s motif of doppelgängers Frecknall doubles her cast cleverly, which feels like a defining way to stage the show. And taking multiple roles as various love rivals to Alma means Anjana Vasan really gets to shine. The staging is simple yet beautiful, taking inspiration from Williams’ experimental works. Few props and no costume changes, just seven pianos forming a semi-circle and accompanying music from Angus MacRae that adds to the atmosphere immeasurably.

As for Ferran, she’s so good she gets her own paragraph here. Ferran’s performance is career making: she inhabits Alma but makes us question the character’s self-definition as “weak and divided”. Her physical frailty is painful to watch. Depicting the degeneration of her health is astounding and Alma’s struggle against illness both moving and determined. Ferran can even inject a sly humour, with a suggestive eyebrow that’s a great asset. Cast in a show that’s as smart as she clearly is, the combination is a production that makes as forceful a case for this flawed masterpiece as Williams himself could have wished for.

Until 7 April 2018

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner