Bruiser's confident, sassy and perfectly judged musical is a must see show at The MAC

Well, it's nice that they made the effort. The MAC in Belfast has been utterly transformed: there is a dissolute and decadent Weimar vibe tonight, everybody is dressed for an Otto Dix portrait. (That’s on-stage; the punters are dressed, in the main, for an Ulster Tatler photo-shoot).

The stage is immaculately distressed and the musicians, already in place, throw suitably louche shapes even before the first chord has been struck – there are enough holes in their fishnets to render the entire production dolphin friendly.

The decision to introduce cabaret style seating into the auditorium is inspired. There is a buzz around this performance that I’ve rarely seen in the theatre; it is convivial and energised. People rub awkwardly against each other; shrieks of laughter fill the hall. This is the third show in the run and the craic is nightly.

Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel Goodbye to Berlin and set in that city in 1931, against the backdrop of the Nazi’s rise to power. We’re introduced to the debauched environs of the Kit Kat Klub and the story of an unlikely love affair between feckless English cabaret singer, Sally Bowles (Kerri Quinn) and a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Matthew Forsythe).

Patrick J O’Reilly’s Emcee enters under a spotlight in a leather trench coat and with mad, glittering eyes. He is feverish and sweaty and Walter Sickert green, his chest fish belly white beneath the leather. He is also fantastic.

While Sally Bowles is nominally the lead in Cabaret, in reality it is the Emcee – a hysterical trickster presence, mutable and symbolic – that is the star-making part, and O’Reilly grabs it with both hands, throttling it into submission.

As he hisses his way through opening number 'Willkommen', he is joined by the Kit Kat girls and boys – 'The funny thing about Hans is that there is nothing funny about Hans!' – who high kick and strut and sashay over every inch of the stage.

Bruiser as a company pride themselves on 'minimum set for maximum impact', but that appears to extend to the cast too as the play not only re-uses its players again and again in different roles, but has them singing, dancing and playing musical instruments, often simultaneously. This show feels like a hit straight out of the traps.

Enter Sally Bowles, 'The Toast of Mayfair', prowling onto the stage in a Louise Brookes bob and some remarkable peacock tail trousers (Christine Boyle’s costumes are beautiful throughout). She is a Wedekind cockney sparrow and we fear that she will come to a sticky end.

Bowles is, in some ways, a caricature of an actor: twittering, diva-ish and spoiled, and Quinn has a lot of fun with the stereotype. But she really comes into her own with the big production numbers. 'Maybe This Time' is delivered with verve and a classic, torch song smoulder.

Matthew Forsythe has perhaps the hardest job in the play. Cliff is our way into this gaudily glamorous world. He sees what we see as it waltzes dizzily about him, but he is not of it. Often he just stands there grinning soppily.


As the story continues, however, he gathers weight and shadow to the character, and by the end we understand him: he is an ordinary man who has been crushed by the historical events rising up around him. He retreats, his tail between his legs, beaten; it is an unhappy but all too believable resolution.

Katie Tumelty shines as Fraulein Schneider, Cliff’s pragmatic and ultimately tragic landlady. Her spiky parrying with prostitute and would-be Nazi sympathiser, Fraulein Kost (Scarlet Widerink, also excellent) adds a lot of snarky fun to the centre of the piece, but her 'What Would You Do?' is the emotional heart of the show, in a second half already larded with heartbreaking moments and show-stopping turns.

Lisa May's direction is perfectly attuned to the material: confident and sassy and perfectly judged. There really isn’t a dull moment. This version of Cabaret fairly crackles with sensuality as buttocks are slapped and tassles are twisted, the choreography all oompahing bump and grind excess.

And at the centre of it all, preening and roaring, is the Emcee. He weaves his way through the performance, commenting on the action, colouring it, taking on attitudes, a protean wunderkind. His last, most shocking reveal draws gasps from the audience (no spoilers here), even as his wrist flicks into a flourish one final time.

As he straddles a gramophone towards the end of the first act, it plays an acapella version of 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' and he is a surly toddler. As he throws a brick through Herr Schultz’ window, he is a gangling adolescent.

O’Reilly is everywhere in this show, even shaking a pineapple like a maraca during Schultz and Schneider’s romantic ode to fruit, 'It Couldn’t Please Me More'.  It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary show.

This may well be the single finest theatrical production I have seen in Northern Ireland. At the risk of sounding like a hyperventilating Baz Bamigboye, I advise you to buy, beg or steal a ticket. Actually, just buy one. That’s probably easier. And there will be fewer repercussions. But go. It really is that good.

Cabaret runs in The MAC, Belfast until October 4.