Arcola Outside, Stage review:
“Willkommen! Madame and monsieur, ladies and gents”. Under the glowering sky we are dragged back to the Weimer Republic and the act of resistance. But the real question is, are we?
William Ludwig, looking a little like a very stylish Uncle Fester has a defined stage presence. Eyes wide, and expansive gestures he dives straight into his evening of song and sass. Accompanied by a close friend and gifted pianist/musical director Dean Austin. The show guides us through 1920’s Berlin and the political maelstrom that birthed such beauty (Marlene Dietrich, Bertolt Brecht) and such horror (the National Socialist Party). There is charm, interesting historical titbits, vocal skill, and a heavy slathering of white face paint.
Missing however is the seedy pazazz, the stained velvet curtains, flickering candles, sexually provocative costumes, or smoke drifting through a harsh spotlight. What’s missing in short, is cabaret. The outdoor space at the Arcola is admittedly hard to morph into say the Kit Kat Club, but very little attempt is made. One keyboard and a lacklustre costume does not a cabaret make. Without attending to the visual elements of the evening the focus falls squarely and heavily on the shoulders of Ludwig, who rather crumples under the pressure.
Nevertheless, the second section is an improvement. Warming up Ludwig, singing effectively in 3 languages (although mumbling his English) is a confident performer with a clear belief in the power of song. Leaving the 1920s we get a snapshot of the way music is used to resist and the anti-fascist, LGBTQIA+ positive message is heart-warming throughout. A spirited rendition of Friedrich Hollander’s ”Munchhausen” has emotional clout as Ludwig rasps Liar Liar LIAR at a hostile unseen world just above our heads. Along with underlining the anti-cold war sentiments of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, some songs really zing.
Despite an over fondness of rambling (Ludwig) both performers work hard to keep us engaged throughout the evening. Yet with the chipboard glinting, and the warm wash illuminating the bare stage, it is hard to feel transported to anywhere, and 20’s Berlin is washed away by the light patter of rain.