Need to forget about the chaotic world? Cabaret could provide the perfect respite
The daily news churn contains more drama than we'll ever find on a theatrical stage - and yesterday, as Donald Trump welcomed the accession of Boris Johnson as our new Prime Minister with the ominous words that he's the "Britain Trump", we're hurtling into the area of political farce that even Noises Off couldn't rival.
So today's confirmation that Noises Off is to transfer from the Lyric Hammersmith to the West End's Garrick Theatre from September is both highly welcome yet also a sign of the times: as a finely orchestrated chaos plays out onstage, we are likely to be experiencing great waves of real-life chaos in public life. Like Trump, Johnson seems to thrive in creating chaos.
Yet, of course, it is also providing great satirical material. As TV writer and director Armando Iannucci tweeted this morning: "The country this morning has the air of some people who got drunk last night and thought it would be funny to kidnap a puffin from the zoo, and who’ve just woken up to see they succeeded." And he followed this with, "They’re now too embarrassed to take the puffin back, so they abandoned it behind some bins in a Tesco car park and drove off."
I used to head to the arts and reviews pages long before I bothered with the front news pages of the papers, but these days I am riveted by the unfolding spectacle, and especially by the columnists who try to make some sense of it all. As Marina Hyde, my favourite of them all, wrote presciently in The Guardian five weeks ago: "Journalist, novelist, Churchill biographer, politician, urban planner, diplomat. At this stage in Boris Johnson’s storied career we have to ask: is there anything he CAN do? Have a crack-eroo at being prime minister with Britain facing its greatest challenge in peacetime, seems to be the obvious answer..."
And parsing what his campaign pitch was at the time, she brilliantly wrote, "To listen to what passes for his plan is to be struck by a very profound sense that he is going to somehow shag our way out of this."
Today, of course, reality bites - and as the Queen formally appoints him to take over the leadership of the country, another Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote yesterday of the task that now faces him: "When Theresa May produced her agreement, Johnson said it was like polishing a turd. He was right. He just failed to acknowledge that it was his turd. Now he finds himself with an unfamiliar task for a man of his pedigree – to clean up after himself."
Just as writing (or reading) a bad review is often more fun and entertaining than a good one, the good news is that the bad news will produce great journalism like this.
As for me, I will seek refuge from the current insanity in one of my favourite art forms: cabaret. To quote Fred Ebb's brilliant lyric to the title song of the 1966 musical Cabaret (which can be found on a new UK tour kicking off at Bromley's Churchill Theatre from 28th August), "What good's permitting/ Some prophet of doom/ To wipe every smile away./ Life is a Cabaret, old chum,/ Come to the Cabaret!"
I'm in New York this week, and have been twice to the city's gorgeously appointed cabaret venue, Feinstein's/54 Below carved out in the basement of Studio 54, that styles itself as "Broadway's Living Room." Here you find, seven days a week and often across multiple showings each evening, some of Broadway's finest offering more intimate and personal encounters than their theatrical roles usually allow.
The fourth wall comes shattering down as they offer versions of their own lives and relationships. One of the most startling and revelatory cabarets I've ever seen is currently being presented here until 28th July, as Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott revisit their onstage and offstage friendship of over 23 years, from first appearing as takeovers in Rent on Broadway to starring in the Off-Broadway premiere of Jason Robert Brown's The Last 5 Years and (back on Broadway) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, their long estrangement after the latter and their welcome reunion now.
It is told with unflinching personal honesty, raw feeling and great songs. It is a story of love and artistic passion, walking a high-wire of intricate, intimate emotions that are laid bare with a ferocious intensity. (And seeing it on a night when the air conditioning had broken down, there was an added sweaty charge in the room that seemed to amplify those feelings.)
But cabaret doesn't always have to be this confrontational. Charles Busch, a New York playwright and performer whose credits have stretched from the long-running Off-Broadway cult hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to the hit Broadway comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, offered a deeply touching, utterly authentic trip down memory lane in his own cabaret show Native New Yorker, also at 54 Below.
His is an inspiring and beautiful story of finding his own artistic voice in performance, and his affirmative self-belief and finely-tuned wit that has brought him here.
For a couple of precious hours, I was able to live someone else's life with them - and forget about the chaos engulfing the world outside. No wonder I love cabaret so much.