REVIEW: Willkommen, Bienvenue And Welcome To A Bunch Of Highly Talented Students: Arabesque School of Performing Arts, Chichester.

For most of us, any mention of the word ‘Cabaret’ brings to mind an image of Liza Minelli, huge-eyed in bowler-hat, stockings and suspenders, belting out the title song.

It’s an iconic image from a memorable and often chilling musical, set in pre-war Berlin as the Nazis rise to power. It’s a story of corruption and degradation, of crushed dreams and lost innocence, sometimes hard to watch, and always challenging to stage. The eight members of the new sixth form at the Arabesque School of Performing Arts have just performed ‘Cabaret’ – their first ever production – and it was a tour-de-force of brilliant choreography, innovative staging and highly impressive performances . . . with not a bowler-hat in sight.

Performed at the Alexandra Theatre in Bognor Regis on 3rd and 4th June, the Arabesque production of ‘Cabaret’ was bold in its staging. Imagine a raised gantry of bolted scaffolding poles across the back of the stage and reached on either side by a flight of metal steps – this becomes the seedy Kit Kat Klub, the setting for the majority of the action of the musical, with key scenes being played out in front. Below the gantry, centre-stage, a small jazz band sits waiting to play, and before the opening scene begins, the stage is bathed in blue light.

Watching the opening night of ASPA’s production, it was all but impossible to believe we were watching school students performing – the slickness of the dancing, the confidence of the singers and the extraordinary evocation of period atmosphere were truly professional – a tribute to the teaching staff involved.

And it was not only the staging that was innovative – the casting was bold too. Most of us remember Joel Gray’s extraordinary performance as the diminutive, glittering, reptilian MC in the 1972 film and might be surprised that the Arabesque MC was played by a girl. But Ellie Earl’s portrayal of the role was highly impressive: she has a powerful voice and a confident stage presence, and in her hands this malevolent voyeur became a decadent, bullying, Teutonic martinet – compelling and repelling by turns.

Steph Horne’s Sally Bowles was a delight: deliberately very different to Minelli’s iconic film portrayal, Horne played Bowles as brittle, over-exuberant and edgy, with clipped, upper-class vowels. Her big numbers were well sung and impressive. In the play, Sally Bowles builds up and then destroys a relationship with Cliff, an aspiring American writer, played for Arabesque by US student, Mark Tims. Tims’ strong voice and easy stage presence worked well against the jittery Sally, both as their relationship blossomed and then as he fell into disillusion at her refusal to leave the fractured world of the Klub.

This was a truly ensemble performance – from the MC to the unnamed Klub dancers, everyone worked at a consistently professional level. This must have been a truly challenging show to perform: the whole cast remained on stage throughout like a Greek Chorus, and provided throughout a wordless commentary on the dissolving morality of their surroundings through movement and voice. The dancers were lithe and sexy, seedy and chilling by turns, and the extraordinarily evocative choreography showcased their skills.

This is the first performance by ASPA’s new sixth form, who are all studying for a BTEC in Performing Arts, and if this production of ‘Cabaret’ is anything to go by, we have plenty of theatrical treats in store for the future.

Gaby Pritchard