Lady Gaga meets Brecht at the Old Fire Station

Stage

A Berlin Kabaret advertises itself as ‘Lady Gaga meets Brecht’ and a ‘Response to the Refugee Crisis’. It is underselling itself. It is neither of those things but something far more poignant. It is not a ‘response’ or a ‘reaction’ to one specific event. Even with its energy and vibrancy, the performance is never pushed to the extent to which it is brash or gaga-esque. The show instead gradually rises, as if forming itself from the ashes of the intolerance and hypocrisy that tarnishes the 20th and even 21st century.

The show instead gradually rises, as if forming itself from the ashes of the intolerance and hypocrisy that tarnishes the 20th and even 21st century

As the show begins, the players present to the audience a society that feels utterly free; sex is a fundamental part of the cabaret with use of riotously funny, documentary material such as Mischa Spolianski’s ‘When the Special Girlfriend’, in which two women chuck over their men for each other, and Lemper’s Chuck out all the men!’ with its rousing chorus commanding the audience to ‘Chuck all the men out of the reichstag!’. This utter abandonment soon deteriorates as the commands to the audience shift to ‘Join the facists!’ and the attitude of the performers becomes tighter and more aggressive as the audience watch the grip of fascism take hold of Germany. Then, along with Bertolt Brecht, the used material moves across the pond to America, the post-war intolerance there drawing eerie parallels to the Nazis’. At the close of the show we finally move back to Germany as we watch Brecht be sent back there, with an operatic song sung in German that is uniquely beautiful and sung impeccably. A real stand out moment.

The show adeptly moves from laughter in the Weimar republic to solemnity in the run up to the Second World War to an odd, broken hilarity in 50s style nationalistic American songs, leaving the audience member emotionally exhausted. Directly comparing the nationalism of the Nazis and the nationalism of post-war America means that, even though songs such as “We’ll have a rodeo in Tokyo and a roundup in Old Berlin” are hysterical, each laugh is punctuated with an undercurrent of discomfort.

As these songs, dances and skits rattle on one after the other, smoothly and with no let up, the audience cannot help being fully drawn in by the sheer energy and skill they are performed with. The singing uses more diction and is more consistently supported than one is accustomed to expect in a West-End show. The dancing is slick and humorous. The production only falls down in one respect, in its momentary inclusions of moments in Brecht’s life. All though of course clever, given the Brechtian style of the production, these moments never seem to sit quite right alongside the presentation of the far more brutal trials and tribulations of the ordinary man. The style of Cabaret’s disjointed parts make it difficult to trace Brecht’s life in any truly meaningful way, and it makes the production appear as if it is trying to do too much.

the audience cannot help being fully drawn in by the sheer energy and skill they are performed with

The cabaret’s four players work wonders with the simplest of sets. The Old Fire Station is, essentially, a small black box theatre and A Berlin Kabaret uses this as a thrust stage; from which each corner is an entrance and exit. This was clever staging. In order to truly bring out a Brechtian feel, and therefore in order to really bring out the political message of the piece, audience involvement and an acknowledgment that what is occurring in theatre is vital. The thrust staging ensured this feeling of involvement and communication, easily facilitating direct interaction with the audience on all three sides. At no point did the fourth-wall exist. Each line was pointed and directed, helped by the fact that so many of the songs could be described as a ‘call to arms’. The backdrop for this thrust stage was a 1920s inspired stylised and monochromatic print of a man dining alone covering a slash curtain (used to fabulous theatrical effect) and a small elevated stage area coming out of it. To each side of the backdrop was a set of ladders, used for layering the action and keeping their movement interesting. A red flag, with obvious connotations, sat perched in between the rungs of one ladder.

A Berlin Kabaret managed to achieve what is so difficult for a piece of theatre predominantly focussed on spreading a message- to come across as timelessly necessary. Following events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, commentary on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights clearly fits into 2018, but what the Kabaret gives the audience is more subtle than that. It is a renewed sense of political engagement. Political fatigue has stuck Britain and the show fabulously combats it. It is impossible not to care when faced with the horrors of history teamed with gutsy songs and determined dances.