La Cage aux Folles

“La Cage aux Folles”
Musical based on the play by Jean Poiret
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Harvey Fierstein

Georges – Philip Quast
Francis – Sebastien Torkia
Jacob – Jason Pennycooke
Albin – Douglas Hodge
Jean-Michel – Neil McDermott
Anne – Alicia Davies
Jacqueline – Tara Hugo
M Renaud / Edouard Dindon – Iain Mitchell
Mme Renaud / Mme Dindon – Una Stubbs
Etienne – Philip Riley
Colette – Kay Murphy
Tabarro – Mark Inscoe

Les Cagelles:
Chantal – Nolan Frederick
Hanna – Nicholas Cunningham
Mercedes – Spencer Stafford
Bitelle – Kay Murphy
Angelque – Mark John Richardson
Phaedra – Lee Ellis

The Band:
Nigel Lilley – Musical Director & Keyboard
Mark Collins – Assistant Musical Director & Accordion
Kay Bywater – woodwind
Martin Evans – trumpet
Tim Smart – trombone
Rutledge J. Turnlund – bass
Allan Cox – drums

Terry Johnson – Director
Lynne Page – Choreographer
David Farley – Set Designer
Matthew Wright – Costume Designer
Richard Mawbey – Wigs and Make-up
David Howe – Lighting Designer
Sebastian Frost – Sound Designer
Simon Sturgess – Production Manager
Caroline Hughes – Costume Supervisor

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 13 January, 2008
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London

The origins of “La Cage aux Folles” go back to a boulevard comedy by French actor, director and screenwriter Jean Poiret. He wrote the play in 1973 and starred in it as Georges, with Michel Serrault as the other leading character and female impersonator Albin. When the film was made as a French-Italian co-production in 1978, Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi replaced Poiret as Georges, Albin’s lover (and the character’s name was changed to Renato). It proved an immense hit and there were two (less successful) sequels and eventually an American musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. This opened on Broadway in 1983 with George Hearn as Albin and Gene (“Burke’s Law”) Barry as Georges. It ran for over 1,100 performances. However, in London the Palladium production with Hearn and Denis Quilley could notch up only 300. This is the first professional London revival, although there have been out-of-town and amateur productions. If this transfers (the Menier has a great track record for feeding the West End with excellent revivals), then this version of “La Cage aux Folles” could well do better than the Palladium. By the time it finishes the current run in its tiny London Bridge home, it will have already notched up nearly half the number of the Palladium’s performances.

There was also an American film of the same story, “The Birdcage” (1996), an adaptation by Elaine May with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, directed by Mike Nichols and with a change of location from St Tropez to South Miami Beach. Les Allonges, the real-life harbour bar in St Tropez inspired the original play’s location.

“La Cage aux Folles” is the name of the club run by Georges and Albin which has a drag cabaret every evening. Georges, who is straight-looking with only the occasional giveaway camp gesture, is the management while Albin, who is as screamingly over-the-top effeminate as you could possibly imagine, is Zaza, the star of the cabaret who is seldom out of costume and behaves even in real life like a woman and indeed a mother-hen. They also have a camp black ‘maid’, one Jacob who flits about the apartment like a wounded butterfly.

Albin and Georges have been gay lovers for twenty years, although Georges does have a grown son, Jean-Michel, the result of a one-night-stand. Georges was left holding the baby and he and Albin have brought the child up as their own. Complications ensue when Jean-Michel announces he is to marry and that his prospective in-laws would like to meet his parents. However, his fiancée’s family is stuffy conservative politicians from the Tradition, Family and Morality Party who wish to clean up St Tropez and ban all the drag clubs. Jean-Michel suggests that his real mother, Sybil, be paraded for his future in-laws’ benefit, but Albin will have none of it and goes off in disgust. Trying to fix matters, Georges suggests Albin meet the folks as old uncle Al, so he has a lesson in how to butch himself up like John Wayne. It doesn’t work!

When they find out that Sybil isn’t coming anyway, Albin dresses up as a frumpy middle-aged mum and tries to pass himself off as Jean-Michel’s real mother. When Jacob burns the dinner, they all go out to a local restaurant but at the height of the celebrations and after singing a rousing chorus, Albin forgets where he is and snatches off his wig to everybody’s dismay.

Thirty years on from the original film and twenty-five years on from the musical, the plot seems a little old-fashioned. Attitudes to gay and lesbian lifestyles are less negative than they used to be. However, director Terry Johnson has kept his production in period, so it could be set at any time between 1973 and 1983 – there are a lot of flared trousers about and vintage costumes to admire. The Menier Chocolate Factory is no London Palladium and it is a tight squeeze to cram in all those outrageous outfits, a chorus line and an audience. Admittedly the chorus line of Cagelles has been halved, otherwise nobody would be able to kick a high leg and these ‘girls’ can certainly high-step it with the best.

It is good that Terry Johnson and his choreographer Lynne Page have not restricted the action, for the cast comes at you. If you don’t want to be molested, don’t sit at the front tables or in an aisle seat. The lack of space actually gives the feeling you are in a louche gay club by the harbour in St Tropez. However, designers David Farley (sets) and Matthew Wright (costumes) have skimped on nothing and the visions would not seem out of place in the Ziegfeld Follies. Even with just six chorus-‘girls’ (including one token female – can you spot her?), the show is still a lavish spectacle.

The show is kept together by Philip Quast as Georges, a voice of sanity in this mad world of drag and temperament. In his efforts to do his best for everyone, he tries to please Albin but gets nowhere. He tries to maintain some sort of order, keeping the home going for his lover and their recalcitrant servant and then having to smooth over his son’s worries over the awful in-laws. Quast, like Georges, keeps his cool and gives a subtly nuanced performance of a quiet man whose life is one long trip to the end of the nearest tether.

Then there is the unpredictable Albin whom Douglas Hodge imbues with great compassion. He will never be the quiet type but always the nervous, twitchy one screaming the place down at any opportunity. After “Guys and Dolls” (Nathan Detroit) and this one, Hodge appears to be becoming a natural musical performer. He may not be the world’s greatest female impersonator but he is convincing as Albin, giving the man both humour and humanity. Yes, he is very funny, something that has often eluded his CV. We may be witnessing a musical-comedy star in the making.

The rest of the cast proves little more than ciphers, although Jason Pennycooke as the black servant Jacob makes the most of his underwritten moments. Both Jean-Michel and his fiancée Anne are colourless characters, but Neil McDermott and Alicia Davies do their best to breathe life into them. Iain Mitchell and Una Stubbs, as the appalling in-laws, cope with what are almost impossible roles. Nobody, even in French politics, can be that bad. Can they? It is really the Cagelles, though, who steal the show, high-kicking their way to glory.

The musical accompaniment interrupts the plot with Jerry Herman’s catchy score, providing everybody with their own particular anthem: ‘We are what we are / I am what I am’ says it all for the drag queens. ‘The best of times’ is a celebration of being alive, and the title number promises the audience all sorts of pleasures to come: “It’s slightly bawdy and a little bit new wave / You may be dancing with a girl who needs a shave / Eccentric couples always punctuate the scene / A pair of eunuchs and a nun with a marine…”.

There are also some plangent ballads such as ‘With Anne on my arm’, ‘Song on the sand’ and ‘Look over there’. They all add up to a funny/sad comment on relationships that will send you home with more than a spring in your step.

  • La Cage aux Folles is at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1
  • Bookings: 020 7907 7060
  • Menier Chocolate Factory

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