“In the dark times, will there also be singing?” A Berlin Kabaret!, which returns to Brighton Fringe after an award-winning run in 2014, begins with the question posed by Bertolt Brecht in 1939 as the world descended into a war of unprecedented scale. “Yes,” he concluded, “there will also be singing about the dark times.”
Four performers and a pianist take us on a musical tour of the early 20th century, starting with a selection of provocative tunes from the much-vaunted cabaret scene of the Weimar Republic. With oddly painted faces like a troupe of Dada clowns, they launch with gusto into a set of mischievous pre-war ditties about gay love, gender and feminism.
These songs, which must have been truly subversive at the time, somehow still sound fresh and surprising almost a century later. Even if the themes are no longer so controversial, the fact they were written at all provides a shock of a different sort. It’s almost uncanny that songs from the 1920s remain so relevant and engaging to modern ears. These opening numbers are lyrically dextrous, tremendous fun and provide a fascinating snapshot of a culture that feels both familiar and totally remote.
A little more context would have been nice, given the obscurity of the material, but it’s not clear how this could be done without breaking the flow. Songs segue into the next, often without a chance for applause. The four Sphinx Theatre performers are excellent singers, each with an impressive range, but special mention must go to the tireless Joseph Atkins who accompanies them throughout on piano and accordion. Though the dramatic impact of the stops and silences is sometimes undermined by the hubbub coming through the walls, it’s also an intimate treat to hear this kind of music unamplified.
The show doesn’t have a narrative as such, yet the chronology of the songs acts as a kind of throughline. After the subversive hi-jinks of the Weimar era we abruptly find ourselves facing the rise of Nazism with a haunting adaptation of Kurt Tucholsky’s 1931 poem ‘Embrace The Fascists’. Thus we enter a darker and sadder set of songs dealing with Jewish persecution and the subsequent exodus to the USA. Once there, however, the tone changes dramatically.
The American reaction to the war and the red scare of the McCarthy era are covered with song and dance routines, performed with aplomb, but undeniably hammy in nature. And there’s another slight shock here too: some of the songs that came out of the US during the war seem even more sinister now than the ones about the Nazis. Irving Berlin’s ‘Any Bonds Today?’ is a tub-thumping ode to capitalism written to encourage Americans to buy government bonds to help the war effort. We also hear a sentimental tune called ‘I’d Like To Give My Dog To Uncle Sam’, which the troupe play for laughs despite the insidious note of patriotic propaganda.
After sacrificing so much to defeat the Nazis, did America end up echoing elements of the fascist mindset during the communist witch-hunt of the 1950s? That’s the suggestion that arises from the last set of songs which rounds off nicely with Brecht’s sly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
On one level, A Berlin Kabaret! is an audacious attempt to unpack historical moments through the music of the time, though that’s not all it is. Far from being an academic undertaking, the show is more a medley of funny and thought-provoking tunes from some of the century’s best songwriters.
The Warren: Blockhouse, Thursday 17th May 2018
Returns 18th – 20th May