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Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast

by on 15 March 2019

Who Needs Therapy When You Have Cocaine?

Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast

by Melinda Hughes

Melinda Hughes Company at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 15th March

Review by Andrew Lawston

The OSO in Barnes has been transformed into a dishevelled 1920s salon, centre stage sits a chaise longue festooned with cushions, sheets, clothes, champagne glasses, and expensive shoes. And, on the other side of the stage, an imposing grand piano.

Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast, written and starring Melinda Hughes, and directed by Sarah Sigal, celebrates the heyday of Margo Lion, one of Weimar Berlin’s most celebrated cabaret performers. Writer, actor and singer Melinda Hughes depicts Margo’s tumultuous life with her husband, the lyricist Marcellus Schiffer, and various partners including Marlene Dietrich, through a one-woman play interspersed with songs from the period, including many that feature Schiffer’s lyrics.

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Margo opens the show with a hungover phone conversation with Dietrich, in which she excitedly reads reviews of the previous evening’s performance, while soothing a coughing fit with a swig of flat champagne. Dressed in an elegant dressing gown and white nightie, Margo tells the audience excitedly about the joys of counter-cultural life in Berlin, and the social, professional and sexual freedom she enjoys. She slinks around her flat, unashamedly sensual, admitting to casual shoplifting, addictions, and blazing rows with her husband and lovers.

At various points, Margo interacts playfully with the audience (asking one man to pay for her taxi) and the on-stage band, which comprises Robert Rickenberg on double bass, William Slingsby-Duncombe on clarinet, and Jeremy Limb on the piano, who also composed the show’s original songs. The band are fully integrated into the performance, but melt into the background when not performing.

Switching effortlessly between English, French and German, with occasional cheeky flourishes in an American accent, there is a relentlessly cosmopolitan flavour to Weimar life, which slowly ebbs away throughout.

As the show progresses, political unrest grows. Anti-semitism becomes rife, and while at first Margo laughs it off (“Aren’t we all Jews?” she asks), soon Brownshirts are disrupting theatre performances, smashing windows, and her friends are being taken in the night. Hyper-inflation is discussed several times in passing, growing ever more serious as even the sensual Margo grows frustrated with politicians’ failure to address the Weimar Republic’s economic problems. In the political turmoil in which we find ourselves, there are obvious parallels to be drawn and this production is certainly timely, but the audience is wisely left to draw their own conclusions.

After a brief entr’acte during which Margo slips offstage to change into a more sombre (but still fabulous) black dress, the tone becomes ever more desperate, culminating in Marcellus’s suicide and Margo herself fleeing Berlin for Paris, while thanking God she had “French papers”. Dan Jeffries provides sound effects from the street outside: traffic, a protest march, and then more sinister sounds of smashing glass and terror.

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The songs also develop in tone from Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer’s lusty “I am a vamp” and “Life’s a Swindle” to more reflective numbers like Friedrich Holländer’s “Illusions”. The musical numbers are also generally when Sherry Coenen’s lighting kicks in from the relatively naturalistic light of Margo’s room to strident reds and blues, with bright footlights completing the evocation of 1920s cabaret.

The recreation of 1920s and 1930s songs proved to be the evening’s highlight for me, with the original numbers written by Hughes and Limb not quite matching the musical style in some intangible way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Certainly I was able to pick out the new compositions from the classics without referring to the programme notes. But all the music was powerfully evocative and beautifully performed, with Friedrich Holländer’s strident “Raus mit der Männern” (“Throw out the men”) being a particularly rousing moment.

Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast is a remarkable celebration of Margo Lion’s heyday, and despite the band’s constant presence and occasional interaction, it is essentially a tour de force solo performance from Melinda Hughes. Perhaps given those circumstances, it might seem churlish to ask for any more, but as Hughes and the band took their much-deserved bows after an hour onstage, I was certainly left wanting to see and hear more.

Andrew Lawston
March 2019

Photography by David Monteith-Hodge

From → Cabaret, Drama, Reviews

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