I’ve read so much about Sam Mendes’ production of the musical Cabaret, which premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1993, but I never saw it. Now, after exploring the theatre available online as a result of the coronavirus, I happened to come across a YouTube video of the full performance. What a joy! And what an incredible performance from Alan Cumming!

I did see Barber Shop Chronicles at the Sydney Festival – a joyous production set at African barber shops where the men can really let their hair down. It’s now available for a week on NT at Home. Meanwhile, Arts Centre Melbourne is streaming Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio which he performed there to much acclaim in 2015. Enjoy!

NT at Home: Barber Shop Chronicles
Barber Shop Chronicles at the Seymour Centre, Sydney. Photograph © Prudence Upton

NT at Home – the National Theatre digital program which is making productions filmed for NT Live available as free downloads – is proving to be a treasure trove for theatre-lovers during the coronavirus pandemic.

From this Thursday at 7pm (Friday May 15 at 4am AEST), for a week, NT at Home will stream Barber Shop Chronicles by Nigerian-born British poet and playwright Inua Ellams. The co-production between Fuel, the National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse had two sell-out runs at the National in 2017, and then a world tour during which it came to the 2018 Sydney and Perth Festivals.

Now a never-before-seen, enhanced archive recording, captured at the National in January 2018 and featuring the original cast, is coming to your home screens.

Described in the Limelight review as a “brilliantly upbeat, multi-layered exploration of community”, Barber Shop Chronicles moves between six barber shops – one in south London and five African ones located in Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra and Kampala – where the men feel they can safely let their hair down as they relax, chat and argue.

Ellams covers a wide range of themes from masculinity to politics, family, community, and the power of language and words, but play revolves around the relationship between fathers and sons.

Laced with music and dance, Barber Shop Chronicles is joyous, funny and invigorating, yet at the same time, an extremely thoughtful play.

Donmar Warehouse: Cabaret
Alan Cumming in Cabaret. Photograph © Tristram Kenton

In 1993, 27 years after Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret premiered on Broadway, Sam Mendes directed a stunning new production at the tiny Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, starring Alan Cumming at the Emcee.

Mendes said at the time that he was aiming to “lay bare what’s at the core of the piece”. Set in the seedy glamour of the Kit Kat Klub in Weimar Republic Berlin, his starkly staged production – which had small, night-club-style tables at the front of the stalls – was seedier, raunchier and more sinister than Hal Prince’s original Broadway production, while the scenes segued into each other with brilliant fluidity.

Jane Horrocks played second-rate English singer Sally Bowles – the role immortalised by Liza Minnelli in 1972 – but it was Cumming who stole the show. Portraying the Emcee at the Kit Kat Klub, Cumming gave a far more sexualised performance than Joel Grey who famously played the role in the film. Lascivious, saucy and seductive, yet menacing at the same time, Cumming gave a sensational performance. When he wasn’t front and centre, he could frequently be seen lingering at the corner of the stage, watching the action.

There’s a story that John Kander (who was interviewed by Limelight last year), watched the production with Mendes. Twenty minutes in, he turned to Mendes and whispered appreciatively: “He’s disgusting. He’s right in your face.”

I didn’t see the production live, but the full 1993 performance is available on YouTube and definitely worth seeing, with Cumming’s performance one you are unlikely to ever forget.

By way of background, in 2017 Limelight ran a story about the history of Cabaret, which was based on the writing of Christopher Isherwood. As we said then, the themes underlying the musical remain frighteningly resonant today.

Arts Centre Melbourne: I, Malvolio
Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio

Leading British actor Tim Crouch performed his hit solo show I, Malvolio at the Sydney Festival in 2014 and at Arts Centre Melbourne in January 2015. It was one of a series he has staged featuring put-upon Shakespearean characters with other productions including I, Caliban, I, Peasblossom and I, Banquo.

Here we meet Malvolio, Olivia’s priggish steward from Twelfth Night, who is “notoriously wronged” when he is tricked into believing that Olivia is in love with him, and asked to don cross-gartered yellow stockings, smile all the time and be rude to the servants. Of course, he makes a complete fool of himself and is roundly mocked and abused. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” he snarls at the end of the play. Here, Crouch gives him the chance to exact revenge.

Crouch, who wrote and performed the production, has provided Arts Centre Melbourne with archival footage of a performance, filmed by students in the UK, so that ACM can post it for audiences to view until May 20.

The raucously funny but frequently unsettling rant, which sees Crouch smash through the fourth wall and heckle theatregoers, was described by Australian critics as “masterful”, “inspired” and “a stellar piece of theatre”.

Sporting stained, torn long johns and yellow socks, with a pair of cuckolded horns on his head, Crouch flips between the character of Malvolio and himself as the actor. Owing much to British farce, from Basil Fawlty to Life of Brian, I, Malvolio not only reappraises Twelfth Night through Malvolio’s eyes, but is a clever analysis of the nature of theatre itself.

Brash, bawdy and intelligently conceived, I, Malvolio is a joyous celebration of theatre.