Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret ★★★★★

A thrilling musical journey through ‘degenerate’ music

This gloriously witty, erudite tribute to the ‘degenerate’ music banned by the Nazis has graced auditoria large and small and now amply fills the Barbican’s vast space. The fabulous Aurora Orchestra, placed centre-stage by Aussie performer Barry Humphries and director Nikki Woollaston, presents a richly satisfying sound, with strings, woodwind, percussion, guitar, banjo and accordion, plus virtuoso violin of MD Satu Vänskä and gorgeous piano of Ben Dawson. Vänskä also thrills with her soprano voice, as Aurora joins Humphries and co-star, fellow Aussie cabaret artiste Meow Meow to do justice, in some cases long overdue, to the composers Hitler tried to suppress.

“Thank God you came!” exclaims Humphries, confiding that he’s “heavily disguised as myself”. He wears a smoking jacket and, lightly, the scholarship to go with it, which he spices with his inimitable witty banter. William Reynolds’ set provides him with an intimate drawing room corner, mirrored by another for Meow Meow, dazzling in black lace, embroidered with jet tassels to set off her jet-black hair.

Humphries explains how so many makers of this music, fleeing pre-war Mittel Europa, reached Melbourne in search of sanctuary – and brought so much with them to enrich the culture of their new home; where teenager Barry hunted down their gramophone records and sheet music. He shares stories too of meetings with remarkable men (composer Misha Spoliansky for one).

Meow Meow’s stunning stage presence, glorious voice and precise diction are just part of what makes her an unforgettable interpreter of songs like Pirate Jenny, the defiant revenge narrative of the downtrodden serving girl. Her command of the material, the German language and her scholarship underpin her performance. Follow that, as Barry says after the rapt reception for another Brecht/Weill classic Surabaya Johnny. And nothing can – except the interval.

With palpable rapport, the pair stroll on for the second half in pyjamas and negligée to continue this funny, revelatory journey sharing and interpreting words and music with all the intelligent delight and sensual relish they deserve.

The show is full of ‘did you know?’ moments. For example, such popular standards as Red Sails in the Sunset and The Isle of Capri, recorded by Bing Crosby, Gracie Fields and Al Bowlly, were the fruits of the collaboration of Austrian composer Wilhelm Grosz, who fled to England in 1934, with Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy.

The Aurora Orchestra are a joy to watch. They even get to speak, performing what Barry argues is the first rap – Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue (English version by John Cage and Henry Cowell, we learn from the hugely informative programme). Vänskä’s duet with Meow Meow, Beste Freundin (special girlfriend), Spoliansky’s 1928 lesbian anthem, is another highlight of this unmissable show. Thank God we came indeed! 

By Judi Herman

Photos by Eoin Carey

Barry Humphries' Weimar Cabaret runs until Sunday 29 July. 7.45pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat exc. 11 Jul), 3pm (Sun only). £19-£75. Barbican Theatre, EC2Y 8DS.  

Listen to our interview with Barry Humphries and Meow Meow on JR OutLoud.