I think I reveal my ignorance if I say that when I think of cabaret I always picture smoky, dimly lit spaces filled with red velvet curtains, walls of mirrors with broken reflections staring back across the room, a grand piano on the small, intimate stage at which a sharply dressed young man would sit and play and be serenaded by a sultry songstress with a whole lot of pluck. But I think I can blame Liza Minnelli for that.
Ruth Wilkin’s True Story certainly ticks a lot of those boxes. There is a grand piano, and a sharply dressed young man, Barney Reiter, who plays with precision and playfulness. There is Ruth herself, who is not only a hugely talented songstress but a clever and broadly engaging songwriter and a charming, charismatic performer who fill the large, empty space of Chapel Off Chapel’s Loft with her vibrant presence. She takes the stage with a contagious energy; her manner is playful, inviting, delivering clever quips and commentary, alongside the already hilarious script, that draws you in and makes you feel as though you’re just hanging out with your best gal pal, giggling behind your glasses of Chardonnay at a dinner party.
But, as Wilkins points out in the wonderfully ‘meta’ monologue at the beginning of the show, she doesn’t have the life of that typical cabaret performer. She’s had a lovely life, she tells us, and that doesn’t make for good cabaret writing material (so unfair!). So she’s trawled the world (the internet) for more interesting stories, which she brings to the stage through songs and stories with impeccable comic timing. From the love ballad about one very special French girl, to an upbeat tune about a young girl’s vie for dragons, there’s plenty of variety in the style and pace of the songs to keep the audience engaged and show off her vocal range. Particularly good was the song about a Polish dentist’s revenge, a brilliantly emotive performance by Wilkin that also used Reiter’s skill and timing to great dramatic effect.
Each story was endearing and engaging in its own way, but there were times when stories didn’t flow together particularly well, and the overall pacing seemed to lag in the middle. For the most part, Wilkin overcame weak segues with a little self-aware self-derogatory comment, she managed to make each one into a punch line that complemented her stage persona. Her ‘Online Review’ segments worked well to break up the songs and shake up the pacing, and were perfectly delivered but relied heavily on technical elements that didn’t quite meet her high level of performance. I thought it was odd that she finished with a story, rather than a song; I found the ending quite abrupt, but maybe that’s because I wanted the show to continue.
The technical elements ultimately undermined her slick and professional performance. The use of projection was vital for the Online Reviews and particularly effective during a beautiful love song about a man carving steps into the mountainside for his wife. But I’m always weary of projection in theatre; it takes a lot of technical skill and expensive equipment to make it look like anything other than a PowerPoint presentation. Throughout True Story the projections appeared at the wrong time, or with the wrong image, and it upset the pacing considerably, jolting the audience from our engagement with the show. Slow or incorrect lighting changes were common, Wilkin was often left in shadow or chasing spotlights, and that made for uneven pacing. Hopefully, though, that was just first night jitters and the tech will be spot on for the rest of the season.
I also felt that the stage itself took away from the performance: it is a massive space, filled with nothing but a grand piano and a screen at the back for the projections. It had none of the intimacy I have come to associate with cabaret, and while Wilkin worked hard, and mostly successfully, to overcome this with her hugely engaging performance, even venturing into the audience a few times, it just couldn’t fill the whole room. Even her costume –a suave black sequined blouse and pencil skirt combo which looked absolutely stunning on her – was lost against the black walls of the theatre.
While these technical errors were disappointing, they were only a blemish on an otherwise hugely entertaining show. It was the musical equivalent of snapping out of an internet coma, realising you’ve been trawling through Buzzfeed for the last hour. I haven’t seen a lot of cabaret in the past, but this delightful show and the powerful, exciting performance of Wilkin and Reiter, may have just given me the bug.