When does real life stop and the cabaret begin? Or the cabaret stop and real life return? On this occasion, Markee de Saw and Bert Finkle offer no simple or easy answers in this intimate, though perhaps too brightly lit city centre cafe venue. Soot-covered Finkle (keyboard player) and the burnt-edged dress of de Saw (vocalist and mean player of the saw) are on the stage from when the first audience members arrive; he reading a book, she reclined on a sofa, resting her eyes. And there appears to be no obvious trigger for when Finkle begins to assemble his keyboard, or signal to de Saw that it’s time to get ready.
There’s an air of tension between the two performers, with their burnt-out 1920s air; a doomed couple who, at one point, we’re told ”met in a dream and continue to argue which is the dreamer and which the vision”. This underlying tension — expressed as much in dramatic silences as in meaningful glances between the two — is shadowed by a pervading sense of something terrible having happened. We’re given a story found in books, and expressed in song — with no pause for breath or applause — yet there’s one burnt book de Saw is reluctant to touch — with crushed ashes between its covers.
de Saw’s melancholic voice is strong, while her companion’s keyboard skills are light and suggestive. Together, they shape and adapt an eclectic collection of songs, ranging from the “Hungarian Suicide Song” made famous by Billie Holiday to works by Simon and Garfunkle, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and even Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads. On paper, it seems a ridiculous idea, but the choices work well, the pair sharing an increasingly unstoppable narrative momentum expressed through these little nuggets of character-infused song. Even the normally jocular Winter Wonderland has a bleaker edge with de Saw and Finkle.
The conclusion, when it comes, retains the ability to surprise; not least because it leaves the audience is left with that same original question — when does the cabaret really end and real life return? There’s no obvious answer, as Finkle resolutely fails to leave the stage or take a bow. But there is an acute delight in the question being asked.