La Cage Aux Folles
New Wimbledon Theatre,
Wednesday 15th March 2017
Tour Information and Bookings
One evening, back in the mists of the early 1980s, I attended a screening at the London Film Festival of a new movie from France that was causing quite a stir. Set in the milieu of nightclub entertainers on the Riviera it packed out NFT 1, and we quickly discovered why. At the end of the film’s ‘opening number’ – a glitzy, flashy Lido-style song and dance spectacular – the ‘girls’ in the chorus lined up, adopted solemn faces, and ripped elaborate hairdo’s right off their heads, revealing them to be merely wigs and themselves to be not chorus girls but chorus boys. This immediately earned them the doubled applause of the ‘audience’ in the movie. But the real treat was the reaction of the audience on the South Bank: a huge, astonished, loudly audible GASP!, instantly followed by equally audible and frank expressions of amazement and laughter. A third of a century ago, metropolitan audiences were not used to such displays of gender-bending hijinks.
Hamish Greer, the producer of the current Bill Kenwright UK revival of the 1984 US musical based on that story (originally seen in the 1970s as a stage play), tells me that – in some British towns today – the show can still get that kind of astonished, startled reception. That fact alone should tell us why it remains as necessary and important a theatrical statement as Michael Coveney first identified it to be, one that needs to be brought to today’s public with its mission to open the eyes of society to some of its lesser-known lifestyle by-ways.
The story, after all, is simple enough. The elegant French farce at the heart of it is the unassuming and genuinely affecting quest of young lovers Jean-Michele (the fine-voiced Dougie Carter) and Anne (the sincere Alexandra Robinson) to marry. Standing in their way are the formidable obstacles of disapproving parents. Anne’s folks are the puritanically conservative Dindon (splendid Paul F Monaghan) and his down-trodden, obedient wife (Su Douglas), who have the highest expectations for their carefully brought up daughter. So what have they to complain of? Well, what they don’t (yet) know is that Jean-Michele’s father, risqué nightclub owner Georges (gloriously voiced Adrian Zmed) is hitched to his headliner star, drag artiste Albin (the stunning central take-no-hostages performance of John Partridge). The solution arrived at by Jean-Michele is for his ‘real’ family (his scrubbed up dad and a biological mother who has been absent pretty much since birth) to be presented to the would-be in-laws, but only once their apartment has been purged of its gay fripperies and fancies. Albin will have to masquerade – minus drag – as an ‘uncle’. Albin is not at all pleased by having to compromise his personal integrity in this way, and from the outset, we suspect that Jean-Michele’s scheme is not going to go according to plan. Thus is the stage set for a showdown between ‘the closet’ on one hand and gay liberation on the other. A big fight is on the cards, and the narrative duly serves one up.
The script for the musical, the first wonderful endeavour by he who quickly became a master of the form (amongst so many of his other accomplishments), Harvey Fierstein, is a well-developed one, preserving much of the main material from the original source. However, although he dishes out plenty of his trademark razor-sharp one-liners, Fierstein thins out the farcical comings and goings in favour of foregrounding more emotionally expressive moments. And for those, Jerry Herman creates one of his very, very best scores, including the eternally popular numbers, ‘I Am What I Am’, ‘Song on the Sand’, ‘A Little More Mascara’. In addition, Herman creates a string of big, brash, toe-tapping, hand-clapping production numbers, featuring – amongst others – the curtain-raising three-costume-change, mind-blowing, ‘We Are What We Are’, and ‘The Promenade’, and the title song about the eponymous nightclub playground of Albin and Georges, ‘La Cage aux Folles’, and also the rousing, spectacular finale that tops everything seen before, ‘The Best of Times’ (a tune, like so many in this score, that – once heard – will stay with you forever). It is good, old-fashioned, Broadway showmanship at its very best, all brought lustrously to life in Bill Deamer’s perfect choreography.
And this production does it proud. Martin Connor’s trusty hands direct all energies to creating the most voluptuous, shiny, funny, and genuinely touching experience. He focusses attention on Partridge’s star turn as Albin, including an extended solo cabaret turn, downstage and reaching out into the audience, working the room in the finest tradition of variety entertainment, with interpolated, up-to-the-minute quips and a relaxed, friendly manner with the audience that helps keep the whole show feeling close-up and personal throughout. Dressed to perfection by Gary McCann, whose design concept creates an all-in-one approach of red plush and gilt to house each successively wonderful scene. Richard Mawbey is on hand with a truck-full of wigs and hair designs. The look is just sumptuous: lavishness of this order isn’t seen in every touring show. Ben Cracknell lights it all deliciously. Kenwright clearly holds this one close to his heart and wants us to feel that way about it, too.
And we do. With a band of tip-top quality led by Mark Crossland, brought to us through Dan Samson’s crystal clear sound design, we get every smart or sensitive turn of the chic lyrics and every note of the bright-as-a-button arrangements. Cast brilliantly well throughout – with even the wonderful Marti Webb in the mix – time and again the show simply catches fire and it’s all you can do to stop jumping to your feet to join in with the fun. This is a state of excitement that many shows aspire to attain, but not all succeed in reaching, let alone with the power behind the gold-lame punch of this divine extravaganza of the heart. Camp it is; but as Philip Core once observed, ‘Camp is the lie that tells the truth’. And the key to all this is John Partridge’s iconic rendition of the complex, fascinating, physically and emotionally demanding role of Albin: an exercise in stagecraft of the highest order, wearing his heart on his sleeve, and dusting it regularly with powder and glitter. Prepare to feel it!