Rufus Norris’ thrillingly claustrophobic production of Kander and Ebb’s Broadway musical Cabaret is probably one of the most near-the-knuckle musicals to hit the touring circuit in some time. It banishes the memories of Joel Grey and Lisa Minnelli in the film version and recreates the show as a musical drama, using the 1930-31 setting on the eve of the war to create a bold statement about the rise of Nazism in Germany during that period. The Kit Kat Club in Berlin – where Cabaret’s anti-heroine Sally Bowles struts her stuff – contained a pot pourri of misfits and with its welcome for everyone was the antithesis of the ‘closed’ Nazi regime. The opening club scene, with dancers hurled around the stage on and off metal casing, emphasises the lack of control those characters had over their own lives too. Siobhan Dillon’s well-acted Sally is a breezy and flighty wild child, a cut glass-accented English girl scraping a living, but – as she reveals in the poignant ‘Maybe This Time’ – she has a desire for a better future. Cabaret’s title number grows from a nondescript beginning to a harrowing conclusion and proves to be a showstopper in a different sense than usual. Dillon gives a beautifully acted performance, where one never knows which direction Sally will turn to next.

Norris bookends his production of Cabaret with American writer Cliff Bradshaw’s arrival and departure from Germany’s Border Control. On arrival in Berlin, Matt Rawle’s always on the edge Cliff initially embraces the hedonism (including both men and women as bed partners), and also gets involved with Sally. Rawle skilfully conveys the transition in Cliff as he gradually realises the truth about what is happening around him and seeks a way out. Cabaret’s infamous MC is played here by the irrepressible Will Young in an impressive musical theatre debut. Young’s MC is much more a part of the action in this production too, amusing yet sinister as he ‘controls’ his acolytes in a Hitleresque fashion, hiding himself behind a painted face, dementedly conducting the onstage band and demanding that ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’. Running concurrently alongside Sally’s story is an older woman’s battle to keep afloat (a tormented Lyn Paul as Fraulein Schneider), dealing with her tenant Fraulein Kost (the lean Valerie Cutko)’s penchant for sailors, and her inevitable decision to turn her back on happiness with her affable but Jewish gentleman suitor (Linal Haft).

Norris’ evocative and stylish Cabaret is not comfortable viewing, with its stylised ‘in your face’ choreography (Javier de Frutus), lighting and sound, and its blatant raunchiness and inherent hedonism. It is in turns sexy, dark, sinister and innovative and is a completely fresh look at the material. At times, it’s like watching a party as it gradually turns from joy to despair, and the conclusion is both inevitable and harrowing. Out on a limited tour, having enjoyed a West End run last year, this well acted production of Cabaret is a moving musical drama with characters for whom life is very far from a ‘cabaret’.