A LETTER FROM LONDON: Howard Davies, Mark Gatiss, Adrian Lester, Ken Stott and Anna Friel Enliven the London Stage

By Ruth Leon
28 Nov 2012

Karen Akers
Karen Akers

This month's report from England looks at productions of Uncle Vanya, Berenice, 55 Days at Hampstead, Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, and explores how cabaret blooms at night in London.

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Cabaret is glamorous. No, not Cabaret, the Kander & Ebb musical which actually refers to kabaret, a completely different kind of entertainment — political, often incendiary songs and sketches in Berlin between the Wars — but cabaret, grown-up songs sung by grown-up singers in beautiful gowns (that's the women) and tuxedos (that's the men) alone in a spotlight in dark, intimate spaces in the best part of town. In New York we used to have the Oak Room at the Algonquin, the epitome of sophisticated cabarets, where the likes of Karen Akers, Steve Ross, and KT Sullivan held sway, singing the songs of the likes of Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and, yes, Kander & Ebb, as you'd never heard them before. Now, alas, someone has decided that what New York really needed was not a legendary cabaret room, but another bar. So it's closed — as will be another of the great cabarets, Feinstein's at the Regency. Although there are still a few places for the great cabaret performers to play — 54 Below has opened on West 54th Street — they don't have the historic cachet of the Oak Room.

Nor the glamour, which brings me back to my original point. All is not lost — in fact, for those willing to travel a little further afield for their Irving Berlin and George Gershwin fix, cabaret flourishes. In London. The great American entertainers — Akers, Ross, and Sullivan, among many others — are crossing the Atlantic to appear at a brand new cabaret room redolent of the great days of glamour. The Crazy Coqs is an Art Deco gem right on Piccadilly Circus. It looks like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, only in color — bold designs, red velvet, shiny black floor. And oh, so glamorous and exclusive.

I should at this point break off and admit that I'm not entirely unconnected to this gorgeous place. In fact, I've been asked to corral all the great American singers who no longer have a luxury home on 44th Street. It's the best job I've ever had, the chance to bring the best of American cabaret to London, reigniting the flames of Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward.

And the Crazy Coqs is not alone. London is becoming the new center of cabaret, with nightspots popping up all over the place. One with real history is the Matcham Room. Older cabaret lovers will remember it as The Talk of the Town, London home of Judy Garland and other luminaries. Now it's part of the Hippodrome, a gambling casino right on Leicester Square in the middle of theatreland. Bigger than the Crazy Coqs, with 180 seats, it can house larger bands on its generous stage; I recently saw a wonderful show there featuring Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, and several other singers, all performing his music from The Light in the Piazza and Floyd Collins.

Deep in the bowels of London's newest theatre, the St. James, is a beautiful studio space that reserves its weekends for cabaret now. That fine actor Anne Reid, much beloved here, does a charming evening of song and reminiscences while that wicked duo, Kit and McConnel, entertain with songs and parodies.

Even the Savoy Hotel, which in times past used to be famous for its elegant cabarets and then stopped, is getting into the act with a monthly surprise for its guests, and, at the other end of the elegance scale, the Pheasantry on the King's Road has a dizzying variety of acts, a different one each night, which it serves up with pizza.

The lure of cabaret's simplicity — a world created by one singer alone in a spotlight with a piano and an audience — is great and it's fun to see London emerging at its center.



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