1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett (Summerhall: 22 Jan. – 2 Feb.)

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 … determined to enjoy a decadently subversive cabaret’ ? 

Editorial Rating: Unrated

It’s 30 January, 1933: the day President Hindenburg made his fateful, fatal choice, and appointed Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany.  That night, a group of citizens and foreigners gather at a Berlin club – determined to enjoy a decadently subversive cabaret, while that pleasure’s still permitted to them.  And we’re invited too.

1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett is essentially two shows rolled into one.  There’s the cabaret itself, up on the stage; and there’s the back-story, played out at the bar and at the tables, by actors who walk and sit among the audience.  It’s an ambitious and challenging production which dares to break some sacred rules, but unfortunately, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The cabaret itself is nothing short of a delight.  David McFarlane and Calum MacAskill are multi-talented performers, playing dancing brown-shirts or failing magicians with equal, expressive ease.  Hazel DuBourdieu delivers a bravura performance as the ironic “perfect German girl”, while master of ceremonies Bev Wright is a dissolute, self-destructive dominatrix.  The original score, which Wright co-wrote with Fiona Thom, is just as well-matched to the milieu: sometimes it’s poignant, sometimes it’s rousing, and sometimes it’s a little sordid too.

So 1933 hits a lot of the right notes, but not always in the right order.  The opening is both lengthy and awkward; it’s not immediately clear whether we’re watching a painfully-misjudged shambles, or a sharply-observed satire.  It takes too long to get acquainted with all the key characters, perhaps because there are simply too many of them.  And most of all, the first half lacks the feel of reckless escapism that the setting demands: we’re told the Hitler Youth is marching in the streets outside, but little sense of danger spills over into the room.

The scene finally snaps into focus after the interval, with the arrival of Nazi official Captain Vöhner – deftly played by a commanding Andy Corelli.  As Vöhner seats himself very visibly among the crowd, our role as the audience becomes an increasingly uncomfortable one.  At one point we’re asked to sing along to a catchy ditty, lampooning Hitler’s rise to power, and the whole room turned a nervous eye to Vöhner’s table.  Would he see the funny side?

For the most part though, 1933 sits in a frustrating middle ground, making unconventional demands of the audience without granting corresponding freedoms.  Daringly, playwright-director Susanna Mulvihill often has two dialogues happen simultaneously, one at each end of the room.  But you have no choice which to listen to; stuck in your seat at a cabaret table, you may well find a crucial character-defining conversation being drowned out by small-talk at the table next door.  It’s true to life, certainly – but it’s not a satisfying way to tell a story.

And on a larger scale, too, Mulvihill’s script often has too much going on.  Overall, she needs the help of a fearless editor: someone who can cut the repetition, bring a tighter focus to the storyline, and point out the places where her messages grow overly obscure.

1933 is a fascinating experiment, with some genuine highlights both on the floor and on the stage.  It’s a shame it doesn’t quite hold together.

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 24 January)

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