A cabaret revival

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Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Last night Cabaret returned to London – Rufus Norris's thrilling revival of the Kander and Ebb musical, first seen at the Lyric in 2006, has been revived at the Savoy. And of course when people hear the word 'cabaret', that musical is the first thing they usually think of. But cabaret is also a genre – and one of my all-time favourite forms of live entertainment.

There's nothing quite like the intimate rapport of singer, song and listener that can be established in a small cabaret room; an art form at once exclusive (not many can get it to see it if it is maintain that intimacy) and inclusive (in the way you are brought into direct engagement with what's being performed).

Attempts to establish a regular home in London for first-class cabaret in a first-class setting have often floundered, with ventures like ones at the Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden and the Cafe Royal in Piccadilly collapsing fast. (Another mooted for the Ritz Hotel a few years ago didn't even open). Pizza on the Park at Hyde Park Corner was the one constant through it all, but it, too, is now in the process of being redeveloped as a hotel.

It's been replaced, sort of, by the Pheasantry on the King's Road, but there's not been enough of a consistent programming initiative to put it on the map and keep it there. But now, after waiting for ages for a first class cabaret room to come along, two have arrived at once. 

I'm already in love with the new Matcham Room at the London Hippodrome; not only is it a magnificent space in its own right with superb lighting, sound, sightlines and comfortable seats in booths or tables - but it also, of course, bears the footprint of the former Talk of the Town, itself a once fabled performance space, so there are some cabaret ghosts lurking around the place.

They're getting so much right about the way the Matcham Room is run that it's probably churlish to complain about the lousy coffee. From the moment you arrive, there's a sense of welcome and attentive service. But best of all is the programming that's gone full-on for bold immediately: the casino setting might imply headliner acts at headliner prices, but actually we've had the musical magnificence of local performers like Maria Friedman, Barb Jungr and Kerry Ellis (from completely different corners of the concert and cabaret spectrum, but who meet in my undying admiration for each of them), and the import from New York of composer Adam Guettel and Broadway's Judy Kuhn.

I caught Kerry Ellis near the end of her run there last week, and it was wonderful to see the room packed with her fans. I've previously seen her at venues from the Royal Albert Hall (which she totally commanded) to the Shaw and of course have also done a series of public interviews with her, too, at which she's sung as well. But last week I saw her at her best, truly connecting with the room (it's easier to reach everyone in the Matcham Room than the Royal Albert Hall) and also her wonderful musical choices, thrillingly arranged by Craig Adams so that even an old standard like 'I Could Have Danced All Night' is revealed anew.

Then on Monday I caught the London cabaret debut of Judy Kuhn, returning in triumph to a city in which she once starred over 20 years ago in the ill-fated musical Metropolis (quickly dubbed Meflopolis by the wags).  This was perfection, too, but in a totally different mood to that of Kerry Ellis. She's urbane, mature, stylish and and sophisticated.

Meanwhile, I can't wait to go to the new Brasserie Zedel's The Crazy Coqs cabaret space that's just opened in what used to be the Regent Palace Hotel, opposite the Piccadilly Theatre.  Clive Rowe is there next week; and there are upcoming seasons for  Broadway's Karen Akers and KT Sullivan, plus local performers Issy van Randwyck and Rosie Ashe, not to mention an ongoing Sunday evening season by Ty Jeffrries's drag alter ego Miss Hope Springs.

Of course, these aren't the only cabaret games in town, but they're the now hopefully permanent fixtures. I'm also heading this Thursday to the Alleycat Bar Club in Denmark Street for David Bedella's monthly After Show night. This week's line-up will include guest appearances by Simon Callow and Idina Menzel.

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