February 15, 2013 8:10 pm

The bittersweet taste of cabaret

Good actors turn songs into episodes in the history of romance, deepening our understanding of human nature

I was at the Crazy Coqs cabaret bar in Piccadilly, sitting at a little cocktail table, nursing a bottle of red wine, watching Lorna Luft perform some numbers from both ends of the Great American Songbook with aplomb. I never tire of hearing these songs that can be rendered with longing for a more glamorous era, or brought up to date and infused with a modern metropolitan anxiety. You can sing “A House is Not a Home” with wistful old-world languor, or you can sing it with a nod to the contemporary misunderstandings that exist between the sexes, alluding even to the havoc that current big-city dating mores wreak on a sensitive soul.

An artist such as Luft knows how to play with these tensions. When people are very good at acting, as she is, each song becomes a short story, an episode in the history of romance, deepening our understanding of human nature. You picture the house that is not a home. The empty chair. What are you meant to do when there’s not enough love in your life? You can sing, that’s what you can do, and if you’re very good at singing, for a spell nothing else matters. For the duration of the song you’ve won. A song can fill a house, all right.

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Susie Boyt

Perhaps this is the solution to my furniture phobia. Can your guests sit on a bit of Bacharach, perch on some Porter?

I think too much when I sing. I aim for a subtle fusion of high celebration, longing and muted hope and end up (on a good day) sounding like the baffled love child of Ethel Merman and Anita Brookner. In fashion terms, this sound might best be represented by a baggy sequinned cardigan.

“I believe I went to Lorna’s first wedding,” the man beside me suddenly said, apropos of nothing.

“You did?”

“I was working for a gossip columnist and the paper sent me by mistake. It was my first job. 1977. When I got there, there were 15 of her close friends and me. I was so embarrassed but she was awfully nice about it.”

“Was she?” I said. I wouldn’t have been.

The joy of the cabaret room, for me, is always bittersweet, even when the songs aren’t (though they almost always are). After a time I generally grow rueful, and a little petulant pink rash spreads up my arms. My mouth hardens and my eyes become watery. If someone asks me what the matter is, I can really only squeal like a child robbed of its sweets: “It’s not fair. I want a show in an original art deco cabaret room!”

“Think of all the great things in life that you do have,” a little inner embroidered sampler remonstrates with me (in cross-stitch, of course). “Why do people place such a high value on what they can’t do, what they haven’t got, and such a low value on what they actually ... ”

Changez la disque!” I yell at this mangy old rag.

Recently I had some talks with the manager of a theatre about helping out in some way. I always assumed my life would have quite a bit of theatre in it and I sometimes think I accepted too readily that things didn’t turn out that way. We spoke about what the theatre might be able to offer any potential principal sponsor that could be found. I chose my words carefully. “So, if someone was able to donate all the money you need, would you be prepared to name the new development after that person?”

“Of course, it would be our pleasure.”

“Could they have the whole theatre once a year for their birthday party, say?”

“I’d have no problem with that. Might have to be a Sunday though.”

“What if they wanted to ... I don’t know, ha ha ha ... play Hamlet?”

“Ah,” he scratched his head thoughtfully. “That we couldn’t do.”

Funny in life when what you really want is to be a chorus girl and what the other side wants is for you to help raise money for the new lavatory block. What is the compromise I wonder? Selling the ice-creams in spangled tights, hoping that the lead will come a cropper?

From the little strip of stage, Lorna Luft was singing a number from Sweet Charity, as if to explain to me why it was her up there and not me: “I’m a brass band/ I’m a harpsichord/ I’m a clarinet!/ I’m the Philadelphia Orchestra/ I’m the Modern Jazz Quartet!”

OK, I thought. I am none of those things. I admit it. A comb and paper maybe, a pair of spoons being rattled against a pearly king’s arthritic knee. All right, all right. But there are other strings to my bow.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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