‘Come and have a dance.’
Your response to that demand (and it is a demand, not a question or request) depends entirely on who says it. From your beloved? No option but to comply. It’s likely one of Your Songs has hit the decks. You need to throw shapes with them, right now.
If a drunken relative puts out a hand, you have more swerve room. It’s within your rights to fake the flare-up of an old sports injury or the development of a new twinge—say from the strenuous shape-pulling you’ve just thrown with your beloved—as an excuse to cry off. It’s also a good cue to make for the bar and grab a glass of something to ease the imaginary pain.
Exceptions to the rule? If your mum or gran make the demand, get over yourself and get back on deck. It’s the least you can do after what you put them through as a child.
If a large sweaty bloke in pancake makeup and a corset who you’ve never met before invites you up, well, what do you do? More specifically, what did I do when it happened to me last week?
Backflash to The Before Times. TLC, our mate WDW and I had snagged tickets to a sure fire West End hit—a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George. This had gone gangbusters on Broadway and was set to come over to London along with its star, a certain scion of the Gyllenhaal family. Long-time members of The Readership will understand why we made sure good tickets were swiftly snagged for an opening night of the run.
Guess what happened next? Yep, that goldarned Situation put us on gardening leave and snuffed all the lights on Shaftesbury Avenue for two years. No Jake for us. The money for tickets went into escrow, as vouchers with an expiry date sometime in 2023. We sort of forgot they were there. Well, I did.
TLC, organised as ever, had been keeping an eye open for likely productions to enjoy once Theatreland drew back the curtain once more. With the cutoff on tickets coming close to her birthday, we had a good excuse to plot a big bash.
The new staging of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret was top of the list. The interior of the Playhouse Theatre had been rejigged into the Kit Kat Club, setting for a dark tale of debauchery in the face of an approaching storm in 1930s Berlin. The opening pre-lockdown run, featuring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, had won every award under the sun. A new cast had taken the baton and shot off with it.
There were tickets, on TLC’s birthday, and an affordable upgrade put us on club tables three rows from the in-the-round stage. Nibbles and a couple of glasses of champagne? Rude not to.
The game was afoot. We were off to That London to get a good hard dose of theatre.
You enter The Kit Kat Club through a side door. Through a metal-beaded curtain and then you thread a trail through the guts of the Playhouse. A cove in a cubby hole hands you a glass of schnapps. You hear music, wild violin and woodwind. You pass a dancer, elegantly stretching. Then you pass through one final door, and the Club opens up in front of you.
I can’t offer you pictures. The last step before you are allowed into the Club takes you past a firm but polite steward who slaps a sticker over your phone camera. This makes a lot of sense. The Kit Kat Club is an immersive experience, designed to be theatrically overwhelming. Why would you want to trap yourself behind a screen?
Musicians and dancers weave through the crowds, feral, feline and dangerous. As you enter the auditorium they slink about, sometimes brushing right past you. There are no safe spaces. You are in their territory, at their tender mercy. We take our seats, lit by the warm glow of a table light, clink champagne glasses and watch as the outside world slides away.
This is theatre where everyone is contributing to the experience. That first beaded curtain is the one which opens the show, breaking the barrier between the real and imaginary. We are no longer in London in 2023. It’s Berlin. It’s 1931. And we are denizens of the infamous Kit Kat Club.
I won’t offer spoilers to the show itself. You know more songs from it than you think you do. The 1972 film with Liza Minnelli is there if you want a flavour. Hell, there’s even Helen Skelton’s brilliant fuck-you routine to Mein Herr in lat year’s Strictly to get you in the mood. Let’s just say the pre-show performances put you in the right head space for a show filled with incredible moments and coups de theatre. Aimee Lou Wood is a raw, vulnerable Sally Bowles, unable or unwilling to see the darkness unfolding around her. John McCrea is positively reptilian as the MC—host, Greek chorus, avatar of the gathering storm. Everything ends unhappily. It’s the perfect Saturday afternoon out.
Back to the interval. At the end of the first act Ernst has just revealed his true colours, turning everything we thought we knew on its head. We’ve gone to the bar, our heads swimming with the beauty and tragedy of it all. Back in my seat, I sip a Maple Manhattan and watch as dancers and musicians stalk the aisles, gradually upping the tempo as the second act edges in. An air of excitement takes hold. There are three boys on the stage, flexible as cats.
Suddenly they break off and run into the stalls, grabbing punters and pulling them up onto the performance area. One of the victims, of course, is me. ‘Come and have a dance,’ the guy in the corset said. I don’t even think about it. I’m on his ground. I do as I’m told.
It’s more of a conga than a chorus line. My hapless companions and I are arranged in a ring with the boys in between, guiding our movements. We flap around and shake our tail feathers, ungainly birds in thrall to the feline dancers.
It’s over in moments. My new friend puts a red paper party hat on me. ‘It matches your waistcoat,’ he smiles. I knew dressing up was a bad idea. Then I’m back off the stage to my table where my cocktail awaits and TLC is in fits of giggles. Moment later the lights change, and the second act begins.
My West End debut, and apparently I didn’t embarrass myself. I may not be a performer, but I know how to dance—and most importantly, when to say yes.
When we finally emerge back into London and the real world, blinking, head-spun, a little drunk, I think about what I expected from the experience and what it delivered. The show is brilliant and bleak and heart-breaking, but filled with shining moments. From the moment you step off the pavement of Northumberland Avenue, you are in another place. That’s what great art does, whether in books or cinema, comics or theatre. Go through the curtain and you never know what you may find. A chance to experience something extraordinary. Maybe, just maybe, a reason to dance.
Cabaret at The Kit Kit Club is booking to December, with the current cast in place until the end of May. For more info and to snag tickets, hit the website.