Here’s an old favourite that never fails to please. Mrs Chrisparkle and I first saw La Cage Aux Folles at the London Palladium in 1986 (she was Miss Duncansby then) with George Hearn and Denis Quilley in the lead roles, and wrestler turned actor Brian Glover (remember him?) as the ghastly Dindon. We next saw the Menier’s hugely successful production in 2009 at the Playhouse Theatre, with Roger Allam and Robert Maskell as Georges and Albin; and now the UK has its first ever touring production, which has been running all year and has finally reached Milton Keynes before its last two weeks coming up in Brighton.
I’m sure you know the story – it’s based on the 1973 French stage farce by Jean Poiret, and the subsequent smash hit film which appeared in 1978. Georges runs La Cage Aux Folles, a St-Tropez nightclub of dubious reputation and glamorous girls (the Cagelles, who are really boys), headed by the one and only Zaza, who, from nine to five is Albin, Georges’ husband. On one aberrant night of bliss twenty-four years earlier, Georges had a fling with Sybil, an English muffin who trapped the helpless chap (that’s Albin’s account anyway) into a spot of how’s-your-father; result: little Jean-Michel, whom Georges and Albin have brought up as a fine, upstanding and (shock, horror) heterosexual young man in love with Anne. The good news is that Anne is also in love with him; the bad news is that Anne’s father is Dindon, the head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. He’s a bully and a bigot, and his party’s stated aim is to close down all the drag clubs in town. You see the problem. Les Dindons want to meet Jean-Michel’s parents before giving their blessing to the liaison. The problem’s getting worse. With Sybil nowhere on the horizon, how are Georges and Albin (or rather, Georges and Zaza) going to handle it? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
The music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman – yes, he of Hello Dolly and Mack and Mabel – and for the most part the songs are amongst his finest. With Anne on my Arm has all the naïve and simple charm of My Fair Lady’s On The Street Where You Live; Look Over There is a delicate, heartfelt description of what it feels like when you love someone else so much, that just to look at them tells you all you need to know. And there are two great showstoppers that elevate the art of musical theatre into another sphere: the loud and proud self-assertiveness anthem I Am What I Am; and, my personal favourite, The Best of Times, with its huge positive energy, reminding us all to live life for the present, to do what you love and to love what you do. I’ve not been able to stop singing it to myself since Saturday.
I’ve been thinking about the best word to use to describe this show. Professional? committed? exciting? extravagant? It’s all these; but above all, it’s a truly lovely production. It’s full of heart, and positivity, and kindness, and warmth. Yes, there is glamour, which frequently gets its balloon burst when the wigs come off and we see the Cagelles backstage as just ordinary working guys; and yes, there is humour, most spectacularly with the cringe-inducing dinner with the Dindons. There is pantomime, which surprised me; for example, when Dindon tells his wife to get their bags, the audience all respond with a long “oooooh”; and when she refuses, we all cheer. But above all there is a moral force behind it that says love always wins; therefore, lovely strikes me as by far the best description!
The cast have loads of fun making it as enjoyable for us the audience as possible. You have to hand it to the Cagelles – each and every guy is a fantastic dancer and incredibly effective in drag; you really do have to look twice – sometimes three or four times – to be sure they haven’t sneaked some girls in. Their singing and dancing ensemble works really well and I loved how they had their own characteristics; Jordan Livesey as Hannah sure knows how to crack a whip, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high kick as that of Oliver Proudlock-John’s Mercedes. The original production had twelve cagelles; this has seven, and I think that works better because you get to know each one just a little bit more.
Paul F Monaghan’s Dindon is a truly repellent git (or should that be gîte); gruff, pompous, and a marvellous bellower of the word “homosexual!” as an insult. I really liked his interactions at the dinner table when he was being treated to more and more of the wine – very nicely done. Su Douglas is also great as his mousey downtrodden wife who toes the line – up to a point. Samson Ajewole stole every scene as the effervescent Jacob, redefining camp and thoroughly deserving his huge round of applause. And what a tall chap he is! I really enjoyed Dougie Carter and Alexandra Robinson as Jean-Michel and Anne; Mr Carter brought simple plaintive emotion to his songs, and it would be a tough cookie indeed who didn’t feel a little ocular moistness at his reprise of Look Over There. The magnificent Marti Webb brings power and presence to restaurateur Jacqueline; you wish the character had more songs, but you’ll never forget the way she takes up the challenge with The Best of Times.
But, of course, at the heart of the show is the relationship between Georges and Albin, here superbly portrayed by Adrian Zmed and John Partridge. I have to confess I’d never heard of Mr Zmed before – but one look at his photo in the programme and Mrs C was very enthusiastic, having been brought up on TJ Hooker. He’s got a great singing voice and brings a touch of natural class and elegance to the role of Georges, as well as smartly underplaying the humour of the part. But the evening belongs to John Partridge as Albin – surely the role he was born to play. I loved how he gently Manchesterised the character – his “hurt” Albin was much more believable than I’ve seen the character played before. There are plenty of opportunities for him to really express himself on the stage – his hilarious Masculinity scene for instance, where he goes delightfully over the top trying to be a credible “bloke”, and his La Cage Aux Folles number where he just about holds on to his character whilst Zaza gets up close and personal with the audience, and the orchestra. After that the audience has absolutely no pretension to “good theatre behaviour” for the rest of the show; we just went with the flow and did whatever we felt like in response to what we saw on stage. I would imagine that’s a different scene almost every time.
But it was Mr P’s performance of I Am What I Am that absolutely takes your breath away. My goose bumps and had goose bumps. I had no idea you could reach down and find such emotion in that song: a heartache that turns to triumph as Albin/Zaza redoubles his determination to live his life, his way, and to hell with the rest of us. Mr Partridge holds perfect control through this epiphany sequence. It closes the first half of the show and the audience go into the interval dazed with its brilliance.
The best of times is now. Or at least, for another two weeks. It closes in Brighton on 26th August. We loved it. If you can, go!
Production photos by Pamela Raith