Regular readers of this column will already know what a fan I am of all things cabaret; and the weekend saw me at two of the best - and opposing - spectrums of the art. At one end, what a pleasure it was to welcome La Soiree to town - a retitled, but fortunately not repackaged, version of La Clique, the divine burlesque and comedy variety bill that has previously played at the Hippodrome (now being converted into a casino, where rumour has it, a cabaret space will be incorporated as part of their licensing requirement to maintain a theatrical element to the venue’s usage) and Roundhouse.
But now they’re back in the wooden mirrored Spiegeltent environment that it was originally staged for, and there’s no more atmospheric space for the show than this, set up in the Doon Street car park site behind the National Theatre.
Of course, this isn’t a cabaret for musical appreciation for the most part (though it does allow for the possibility), but for more perverse expressions of human talent like being able to dislocate your own shoulder and squeeze your body through the head of a 12-inch tennis racket, or perform balletic acrobatics that include doing a hand-stand on your partner’s head.
But there were also quite a few striking musical theatre strands to the show, including a recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain lamp-post routine, except that one half of the English Gents who does it dances horizontally on the lamp-post rather than standing vertically; and a puppet mime to Gypsy’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’ (to a recording none of us could identify, not even La Soiree’s handsome ringmaster Brett) that is sheer genius.
Burlesque has undergone something of a resurgence in the last few years, and La Clique/La Soiree have been a pioneering exponent of packaging it as something hip, accessible and intensely theatrical.
Old-fashioned sung cabaret, of course, needs no more elaborate packaging than a singer and a song, and now that Pizza on the Park is alas no more, the longest-running cabaret season in town is the Sunday afternoon Cabaret in the House at Highgate’s Lauderdale House. Producer Katherine Ives for Trilby Productions and her programmer Tim McArthur established it in 2001, and they’re currently in the midst of their 20th season.
It’s both a remarkable champion and celebration of talent: each show is cleverly programmed with a curtain-raiser cabaret debut from someone just making their first steps in a musical theatre career, followed by a “name” headliner. Yesterday’s scintillating bill saw the delightful Ashleigh Jones - who graduated just last year from the London School of Musical Theatre - pass the first hurdle that many in cabaret stumble over: she was able to fill the gaps between songs with amiable chatter that illuminated both the material and her own personality.
But it is, of course, the headliner that people have come to see, and yesterday was the turn of Hadley Fraser, one of our best, but largely unsung, leading men - unsung mainly because he’s had the unfortunate distinction of being the leading man in a series of flops, most recently The Fantasticks, but before that in The Far Pavilions in the West End, and Boublil and Schonberg’s The Pirate Queen inbetween on Broadway.
But if he’s been unlucky in some of his theatrical choices, he’s a versatile, multi-skilled and handsome leading man, as well as original singer-songwriter who also plays the piano and guitar (and has also apparently recently written his first play, too). Never mind his bad luck; God seems to have given him all the gifts, including a bedazzling set of white teeth (another cabaret essential: you’re going to be looking inside a singer’s mouth quite a bit, so it’s got to be pleasant looking into it). But it is also what comes out of that mouth that matters, as well, and Hadley is blessed with both a lovely expressive tone and a wide range.
It’s also refreshing to hear him not go for the obvious choices: he may open with ‘My Foolish Heart’, but the rest of the theatrical part of his repertoire goes from a song from Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns to an entry from a 1997 off-Broadway musical The Last Session — and when he asked if anyone knew it, I alone was able to say yes. (Not only did I see its 1997 premiere, but I also have the cast album!) But he also showcases a whole set of his original songs, some of them co-written with Ramin Karimloo, who joined him yesterday to perform them, too, both accompanying themselves on guitar.
Seeing Ramin here again yesterday brought him and me full circle: it was here at Lauderdale House that I saw him make his own cabaret debut in 2004 - and reviewed him here in the pages of The Stage, where I wrote that, “with his theatrical rock voice - not to mention pop star-worthy swarthy good looks - he has the sort of charisma to spare that reminded me of Broadway’s Adam Pascal.” It’s a review that Ramin remembered well when two or three years ago I ran into him in Cafe Nero in the Haymarket. He was starring in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera at the time, and I didn’t recognise him at all; but he quickly introduced himself and reminded me of my review! I subsequently interviewed him earlier this year before he opened in Love Never Dies at the Adelphi.
It’s rather wonderful that he may be leading the company of a major West End musical but still has the time and inclination to turn up in Highgate on a Sunday afternoon to jam with an old buddy. And that’s the thrilling thing, too, about Cabaret in the House: it lets us see different sides to West End performers that they don’t always get to show when hiding behind a character or, in the case of Ramin, a mask.
I am informed that the version of “Let Me Entertain You” used in La Soiree is performed by Nina Hagen.