Bill Kenwright brings Rufus Norris’ multi-award-winning production of Kander and Ebb’s landmark musical Cabaret to Peterborough’s New Theatre in January 2020 as part of its extensive UK and Ireland tour. Leading the cast is star of stage (A Chorus Line, Chicago, La Cage Aux Folles) and screen (Eastenders, Celebrity Masterchef) John Partridge. Here he talks about why he fought for the iconic role of Emcee in Cabaret – and why it might be the last chance for theatre fans to see him on stage...
Cabaret has become one of the classic musicals, and many people will know Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning film – but for anyone who doesn’t, what’s it about?
Cabaret is the story of a young novelist, Clifford Bradshaw, who comes to Berlin and meets Sally Bowles at the Kit Kat Klub. The story really unfolds from there.
It sounds like the set-up for a standard love story, but being set during the rise of the Nazis in Weimar Germany, there’s much more going on, isn’t there?
There is. It was written more than 50 years ago and it deals with extreme political themes: antisemitism, far-right politics, how far our political landscape can change in a short amount of time. To be taking this show around the country right now as our own political landscape is so volatile, delicate and fractured, feels extremely timely and relevant, maybe even more so than when the show premiered. It is so skillfully crafted. The story is so strong in this show that it could be a play on its own. It really is hard hitting; it is not what you expect it to be. You must expect the unexpected when you come to see Cabaret because it really is something else. When you leave the theatre it stays with you.
You’re playing the iconic role of the Emcee. How are you finding him?
He’s a showman, he’s an orator and he’s extremely fun to play. He is really a metaphor for the wider political climate in Weimar Germany at that time. We only ever see him in the Kit Kat Klub; a scene plays out and then I come on to educate, inform and entertain, to confirm to the audience what it is they’ve just seen. He holds up a mirror and reflects back not only what has been seen on stage, but also the audience’s reaction to it. The mirror I’m holding up right now is massively important. We should all be looking at ourselves and examining how we progress, not just here but with humanity in general, how we are able to still function as individuals with our own views, opinions and ideas, yet come together for the common good. There is something exhilarating about taking this show around the country right now. It’s quite extraordinary.
You deliberately asked the show’s producer, Bill Kenwright, if you could play this role. Why was that?
I turned 48 this year and the time was very much now. I had to grab this one. As an actor there are very few roles that you are absolutely right for. Most of the time you wear a wig, put on a costume and you make yourself fit. Sometimes that’s successful, sometimes that’s not so successful. But there are a couple, if you’re lucky, of roles that fit. I feel that Emcee is somebody I know well, somebody that I understand and somebody that my skillset, my life experience and my performance experience – the good, the bad and the ugly of it – I can wrap up in this role. That is very rare. And I lived in Berlin for 10 years. I know Berlin very well. I met my husband there. I speak German fluently. I’ve actually been to the Kit Kat Klub, which is still alive and well, and fully functioning in the heart of Berlin. I have been on many occasions. So I bring all of that to this production too. I used every crayon in my pencil case, because I feel that that’s what I’m able to do.
How are you finding alongside Kara Lily Hayworth, who plays Sally Bowles, and Anita Harris, who plays Fraulein Schneider?
I think Kara is an amazing talent and in some ways she’s still undiscovered. She’s a beautiful actress, very naturalistic. Watching Kara and seeing her work in the rehearsal room, that’s when I thought “This girl is special.” She can listen, she can take the notes, she can apply the direction; you’d think that’s an easy thing to do, but it really isn’t. I think she’s very special and I think people will really love her performance as I do. And my darling Anita Harris! People, I think, will be very surprised to see her in this role. It is an extremely moving performance and very different from what people will have seen her do in the past. I really feel this is one of the greatest portrayals of this role ever. I really do.
There are rumours this might be theatre fans’ last chance to see you in a musical. Is there any truth in that?
The food side of my life has really grown since Celebrity MasterChef. My very first book comes out at the beginning of next year and I’m immensely proud of that. It’s called There’s No Taste Like Home. My food story has really helped me reconnect with myself and I’m keen to develop that side of my life. In order to do that, I need to invest time in it. Plus I’m married and I have a husband that I adore and I never see. I went into Cats when I was 16 and now I’m 48. I’ve been doing this for 32 years. I’ve done over 20 West End shows. I’ve done over 30 major musicals. I’ve done a lot of it and touring is hard work. Also, I’ve been sober for over two years now. It has had a profound effect on me. In some ways I think I used to enjoy acting and performing because I enjoyed the escapism of it. I enjoyed being somebody else because I wasn’t sure who I was. In becoming sober, I have learned a lot about the person that I was running away from. I’ve realised that he’s not quite as bad as I thought he was. My desire to step into other people’s shoes and other people’s lives has lessened. So I’m not saying I will never act again, but I’m taking my foot off the pedal. I am approaching my 50th year, so I have to ask, “What do I want for the next 10 years of my life?” I at least want the option to examine other possibilities. In order to do that I need to give myself a little bit of time. But there is one other role that I am going to play next year. I can’t tell you anything about that right now… I’m really excited about it, though!
CABARET • New Theatre, 21-25 Jan 2020 • www.newtheatre-peterborough.com