Adelaide Cabaret Festival
The Famous Spiegeltent
Until 22 Jun 2019

Review by John Wells

Ruthie Henshall is a seasoned old pro. On a crisp winter night, she fills an already packed Spiegeltent with warmth, delight and genuine star power. Henshall is a veteran of the West End and Broadway stages: her musical rap sheet includes “Chicago” (playing, it seems, every role) “Crazy for You”, “Oliver!”, “Miss Saigon”, “Billy Elliot” and “Les Miserables”. She brings a wonderful combination of impeccable stagecraft, wily experience and an ingénue’s freshness to her sensational Cabaret Festival show.

Henshall is a fine, subtle actor, and her deft skill make this show so much more complex and rewarding than these cabaret-best-of productions often are. With a toss of her head, or a devilish glance, or a droll accent, she inhabits her characters with great effect. There are moments of disarming emotional openness – the dark questions of “Maybe I Like it This Way”, and the familial heartbreak of “So Big/So Small” – and beautifully-judged and genuinely hilarious songs – Victoria Woods’ “The Ballad of Barry and Freda” brings the house down. Henshall opens up and shows her class with a medley from “Chicago”, a spell-binding version of “Electricity” from “Billy Elliot” (it feels immediate and fresh as if it’s never been sung before), and a soulful “I Dreamed a Dream”.

Henshall is charming, funny and self-deprecating in between songs. She delivers anecdotes and reflections with well-practiced aplomb: embarrassing mistakes in front of her idol Sondheim, the old-fashioned way of becoming a star (can you imagine hard work over many years and not a reality tv appearance?), and her personal challenges (when she mentions her marriage break-down, there is a palpable chill of empathy in the room).

Henshall’s “band”, pianist Paul Schofield, accompanies her with flair. The piano feels both orchestral and delicate. Henshall’s lustrous and polished voice is expressive and beautifully communicative, although she struggles with pitch at times, most noticeably in her upper register.

The Cabaret Festival invites an annual interrogation of what cabaret is; if cabaret is an intimate and engaging connection between performer and audience, then this is perfect cabaret.