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Effigies of Wickedness review at Gate Theatre, London – ‘wildly entertaining and spiked with menace’

Le Gateau Chocolat, Lucy McCormick and Peter Brathwaite in Effigies Of Wickedness at the Gate Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“The world’s gone nuts, so best of luck!” trill the seductive quartet of performers in this captivating cabaret – a message of furious defiance, delivered with a shrug, a wink and a manic lipsticked grin.

Initiated by the baritone Peter Brathwaite, with dramaturgy by impish theatrical provocateur Christopher Green and new lyrics by Seiriol Davies, the show is a collection of Weimar songs banned by the Nazis.

In 1938 propagandist Hans Severus Ziegler mounted an exhibition, ‘Entartete Musik’, designed to demonstrate the degeneracy of “un-German” artists: black and Jewish composers, politically disruptive voices. It was a sell-out success.

Here, in this ground-breaking collaboration between the Gate and the English National Opera, some of the forbidden music is gloriously reclaimed, echoing between that perilous pre-war world and our own, ugly-beautiful, piercing, funny and terrifying.

Experiencing Ellen McDougall’s production is like gorging on a glitzy box of poisoned dark chocolates: bittersweet, dangerous and delicious. Riotous entertainment switches in a mere bat of false eyelashes to something desolate, macabre or terrifying. The singing is sublime – except when it’s deliberately designed to set your teeth on edge. The cast are sparklingly charismatic – until they let the painted masks slip and stare into the abyss.

Some numbers will be familiar to Kabarett fans – in particular, Spoliansky’s Best Girlfriends, a perky paean to lesbian love, and Life’s a Swindle’ a chirpy castigation of venality that swiftly calls to mind our own bankers, tax dodgers and corporate crooks.

Kurt Weill’s Petroleum Song, too, is well-known, its stark warning against freebooting greed and environmental destruction as penetrating and pertinent as ever.

But there’s lots here besides that creeps up and grabs you by the guts and the heart. Ellan Parry’s design, with its intimate seating and shiny black stage littered with a bright jumble of props and costumes, crams us all companionably up against one another. There’s bantering audience interaction, wisecracks and pratfalls, and the performers often fix you with an unwavering gaze, creating an extraordinary complicit intensity.

The rich-voiced magnificence of drag artiste Le Gateau Chocolat, the cool, elfin wit of mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, Brathwaite’s limber alacrity and Lucy McCormick’s glamorous, slightly unhinged diva: they complement each other to perfection. McCormick’s rendition of Brecht and Eisler’s Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal), in which a desperate woman pleads for help from a cruelly dismissive doctor, is devastating. And there are secret menaces lurking in McDougall’s staging that leave you chilled and gasping, the glitter that dazzled a moment before suddenly lodged in the throat like shards of glass.

The show is at once a wild pleasure, and deadly serious. With our world continuing to whirl in its own insanity, what better time to come to the cabaret?

Seiriol Davies: ‘Musical theatre can sneak things into people’s heads’

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Wildly entertaining cabaret of songs banned by the Nazis that’s spiked with menace