First off, there is the love of music. A dedicated, talented cellist is consumed by his art and by the desire to be the very best in his chosen field. But something's awry: his talent misfires and he topples from his pedestal at the very top. Somehow it seems that he lacks that intangible quality that marks those destined for stardom out from those who are merely technically proficient: he lacks soul, he lacks a heart-rending backstory, he lacks...connection. Cue a brief foray into drugs, booze and parties - followed by the commencement of the search for his 'connection', in which we meet love Number Two.
Matthew Sharp, playing our tortured protagonist, demonstrates a clear vocal ability in an introductory, warm-up first half consisting of popular/cabaret classics with a European theme (Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Maurice Ravel). His accompanists the Sacconi Quartet are simply outstanding. Dressed to kill in red and black, they launch into Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade with a flawless lightness of touch worthy of the soundtrack of any Ealing comedy. This is chamber music at its finest (I got the impression we were hearing something that would normally cost rather a lot) - so if you spot a chance to hear these guys near you, do go. They're in association/residence at both the Royal College of Music, Hampstead Theatre and Bristol Old Vic so there should be chances enough. Their rendition of movement 2 of Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F (Assez vif, tres rhythm - tons of joyous, bouncing pizzicato, like frogs in a box) had me near leaping out of my seat (I've loved it since a version was the soundtrack to 1990s tv series The Camomile Lawn).
After a short interval, it was back for the main course - and a total mood change. Until this point there is little that is death-y or cabaret-y about the performance, Matthew Sharp mostly delivering his songs from centre-stage with little dramatic expression. In Death's Cabaret he is transformed: rushing about the stage, jumping into the audience, playing the cello standing up, acting whilst playing the cello, singing whilst playing the cello and acting - it is quite incredible. As we come to know our slightly unpleasant cellist protagonist we wonder, inevitably, if there are parallels between his life and Sharp's - which adds a delicious touch of boundary-blurring mystery to proceedings. Sharp proves to be a master storyteller, with the tale and the music intertwining so beautifully that one thinks of Peter and the Wolf; captivating and absorbing, the fairytale sweeps us along with it, til even at its most fantastical we are hanging on every word. Writer and composer Martin Riley and Stephen Deazley took to the stage afterward for a bow and a well-deserved extra round of applause after those for Sharp and the Sacconi.
I won't spoil the ending; go and see it for yourself. A quick Google reveals that there will be a 2012 spring tour commencing in Feb at Bristol Old Vic; see www.sharpproductions.org/tour_dates/deaths_cabaret.html for further dates.