Terrace Café, Royal National Theatre, London SE1
Opened 17 March, 2000

As a four-week experiment, the National Theatre's Terrace Café offers a floor show along with dinner and a late licence on Friday and Saturday nights. It is literally a floor show: every spare bit of aisle between tables and the bar is utilised, as well as the walkway outside the window, with its panoramic views across the Thames. This puts a slight damper on the informal cabaret atmosphere, in that one is encouraged to quaff, but can't actually order during the main show, since the waiters would get under the feet of director/MC Henry Goodman and his company. Nevertheless, the meal itself is accompanied by a selection of songs and, more curiously, a brief live sketch from a political cartoonist. A guest celebrity spot is also included on the night I attended, Josette Bushell-Mingo hotfooted it over from The Lion King to sing a sombre blues of her own composition.

Metropolis Kabarett is intended as a satire on London life. Goodman and his writers principally Paul Herzberg and Perry Pontac are in general skilled at finding a middle ground in which the material and its presentation are neither savage and polemical nor timid and toothless. A number of Brecht/Eisler songs are featured, including the "Song of Supply and Demand" rewritten as an indictment of rabid dot-com speculation. Sometimes the targets are easy obsession with body image (a frenzied Dawn Hope leading an a capella number), for instance, or the all-night clubber; sometimes the humour is fleetingly disposed of to bring out a deeper disquiet, as with Anna Francolini's dark, bitter rendition of a song about a dying prostitute or Peter Polycarpou's performance as the "crackwalker" in what is effectively a dramatised short story. Sometimes they are straightforward fun, as when Jenna Russell sings Stiles & Drewe's song of infatuation with a theatre extra, "Carrying A Torch" ("for the boy who's carrying a spear") or Paul Sharma's exuberant tap routine in "Feet Do Your Stuff". But a handful of times they hit the spot dead centre; the final routine, in which the second coming of Jesus is hijacked by Goodman's New Labour spin-doctor, is a touch heavy-handed but admirably unself-conscious about it.

The Kabarett's main problem is that it does not have enough time to run in properly. Goodman's verse links between sketches were confined to the second half of the main set; earlier pieces may have been cut for the sake of running time, but the effect is to wind things down towards the end rather than usher them to a climax. But with only eight performances, the potential for fine tuning is severely limited. Perhaps a longer subsequent run will allow the show to consolidate itself as it deserves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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