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Her Life Is a Cabaret - Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast at JW3

Melinda Hughes channels one of Weimar Germany's most notorious female stars in this one woman cabaret show.

Was there ever a more glamorous period in history than 1920s Berlin? A world full of subversive art, culture and of course, cabaret, Weimar Germany was a time and place quite unlike any other. This uniqueness and variety is the subject of the second song in Melinda Hughes’ one woman Cabaret/theatre performance of Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast. In ‘Here in Berlin’, she chastises Rome for being too old, New York too new and Copenhagen too cold, setting up Berlin as the perfect town for an early 20th century bohemian like Margo Lion, the woman whose life she explores through this show.

A singer, actress and socialite, Margo Lion was a key figure within the city’s nightlife, married to Marcellus Schiffer (a famous author and librettist) and a sometime lover of Marlene Dietrich. Hughes’ show tells the story of her life, from her start in the big city as a young chorus girl to popular cabaret singer and film actress. Accompanied by only a pianist and a double bassist, Hughes tells the story through a deft combination of monologues and songs, interspersed with brief soundscapes that recreate the bustling business of smoky clubs and late night streets.
Margo Lion and Marlene Dietrich, © Stadtmuseum Berlin | Foto: Joseph Schmidt

The stage is relatively simply dressed for a show about such an extravagant woman: aside from the musicians there is only a chaise longue and a small table as set dressing. These are adorned with various props that Margo will draw from throughout the show- a sparkling necklace, a suitcase, a length of red ribbon- to great effect. Margo’s presence on stage is perhaps more unassuming than one expects from such a character, though it’s clear as the show unfurls that this is so we can see the complexity of the woman we are watching, as well as the period that she lived in.

Hughes spends the entire show in character as Margo, placing the audience in various roles as confidante, paying club member and fly-on-the-wall throughout the performance. She starts the show as perhaps the most predictable version of Margo, regaling us with tales of the night before on the morning after. We are treated to a full sense of the glamour of Berlin, which is only enhanced through the first two musical numbers, the aforementioned ‘Here in Berlin’ and ‘Berlin im Licht’. It is a real testament to Hughes and composer Jeremy Limb that it is impossible to tell that the former of these songs is not from the period- it was written in 2018. Through a clear thorough knowledge of the styles of the time that pervades throughout, the two create a show that really does seem to capture the hedonism and decadence of the Weimar world.

But Hughes does not just simply present us with a shallow hedonist from a nightclub - as the show continues she expands Margo’s inner and outer life to show us how unstable the climate (and her character) was at the time. Using one of the only props on stage - an old telephone - to conduct one-sided conversations with both her husband and Dietrich, we get glimpses into the turbulence of Lion’s relationships with those closest to her. These moments give the show a poignancy as it draws towards its conclusion, which is only furthered by Hughes’ contextualising of Lion’s life amongst the rise of the Nazis. In the latter half of the show the soundscapes become sounds of baying crowds and shouting soldiers as Lion tells of her and her husband escaping a theatre performance that was disrupted by a Nazi mob. The songs after this point, though not dealing directly with the political situation of the time, take on a sadness and melancholy that is absent from earlier moments. The show’s final song, ‘Illusions’, is a beautifully wistful ballad from the post-war era that rounds off Lion’s story perfectly. Having fled from Germany before the war, she led the rest of her life performing, though apart from the society of Weimar Berlin that made her name. Speaking of ‘slightly used’ illusions for sale, the ultimate songs encapsulates both her joyful life and her sadness at how it all ended.
Hughes’ show is an intimate and intricate portrayal of a woman and a period that are both equally fascinating. Through brilliantly arranged and performed songs, in combination with a thoughtful and creative performance of a person’s life, she manages to show the audience a taste of the cabaret world as well as the impact it had on those living in it.
Margo: Half Woman, Half Beast was reviewed at JW3 on 20th June before heading to The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 2 – 18 August.