My Kander and Ebb obsession has been well fed this summer, with both Flora the Red Menace and Curtains keeping me well entertained and exposed to their considerable skills as a show-making duo. But last night I had an opportunity to do something new: to see the play that inspired their most famous show, Cabaret. Not only would I Am a Camera (at the Southwark Playhouse) give me an insight into the seedy life of inter-war Berlin (and the writing of Christopher Isherwood), it would help me understand the creative process they followed in creating a musical version of the story. Obviously, this was NOT a Kander and Ebb show, but for a fangirl it was an unmissable opportunity to get closer to the characters Cabaret immortalized – and, with any luck, it would be fun.
SO! Let’s talk about the production of I Am a Camera as put on by Southwark Playhouse. It all takes place in a one bedroom flat in Berlin (nicely designed though I suspect not so fun to look at from the seats on the side), run by the busty, middle-aged Frau Schneider (who seems to represent the “everywoman” of Germany of the time), and inhabited by the mousy writer Chris. While he claims to just be a camera reporting on what he sees, still gets stuck in enough to develop strong friendships and get involved in street brawls when things start coming to a crisis. However, as a Briton who socializes pretty exclusively with the Anglophone community of Berlin, he is very much removed from the drama of what is going on in the country around him – meaning he operates at a level of distance that’s actually a bit despicable. Thus, the life he lives in his apartment is pretty much all of his life – but with the addition of a crazy cabaret singer, he has a lot of vim added into what might have otherwise been a very sterile existence.
While there doesn’t really seem to be much of a plot (and both the beginning and the end seemed tacked on as a way of framing what is basically a slice of life), still, the time we spend with these characters is very enjoyable. I was impressed by how richly the script captured the lives of, essentially, a couple of nobodies on the sidelines of history (so stupid they seem utterly unaware of how dangerous the times they’re living in are), but how deeply the actors inhabited these characters. “Chris” (Harry Melling) and Sally (Rebecca Humphries) are both pretty much perfect, inhabiting-the-other performances, especially when they are together and they show an intimacy and friendship that seems hard to see as “just a couple of actors on a stage.” Sally’s falseness and fakery are very much that of a certain kind of girl whom one minute is your friend and the next minute is selling you out – totally running on emotion, incapable of planning ahead. And while “Chris” seems like a character with nowhere to go, he comes through as a person of deep feelings and strong moral core – though one can’t help but wonder if the real Chris just chose to write himself that way in retrospect.
If you’re a Cabaret fan, you’ll adore seeing little snippets that play big parts later – such as the pineapple and the fur coat – and the way the constituent elements of the supporting characters provide multiple strands to be unpicked to support the narrative thread of the Kander and Ebb show. You might miss the nightclub scenes, but underneath it all I was thrilled by the chance to get a closer look at Sally Bowles …and a chance to more deeply understand one of my favorite works of musical theater. But really, I loved spending and evening with such a bunch of perfectly realized, wholly imperfect, and one hundred percent believable characters. Nice job, Southwark Playhouse!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 10th, 2012. I Am a Camera continues through September 22nd.)