New Theatre, Cardiff – until 4 February 2017
“Something about always”: that’s the line I always think of when I think of La Cage Aux Folles. For some people the height of romance is the heroics of Les Mis, or the doomed love affairs of War and Peace. For me it’s two homosexuals (one transvestite, one regular) on the French Rivera. It had been a while since my last trip to the Rivera- over 6 years in fact, so when the Rivera came to my doorstep I had to go.
Welcomed into La Cage by Adrian Zmed as Georges, from those first notes, and the first glimpse of sequins on the notorious Cagelles, who are as lithe, talented and of course beautiful as you’d expect. Each of their appearances is increasingly daring with the dance moves and costumes that probably blew the budget of Bill Kenwright’s tour in sequins and feathers alone. All bringing their own spark to their ‘Cagelle’- particularly memorable is ‘Hanna from Hamburg’ whose whip-trip was waylaid by her costume, but still raised a laugh. Across the production Bill Deamer’s choreography captures the energy and look of the drag scene while also letting the ensemble show their talent in that department.
Matching the Cagelles for sparkle and glamour is the set of La Cage, with the centrepiece of Gary McCann’s set being the opulent gold La Cage club. With birdcage gilt carvings as backdrops and a gold shimmering ceiling, the gaudy Rivera is brought to life. Seamlessly moving into Albin and Georges apartment and it’s – interesting- choice of decor, the world of La Cage is perfectly encapsulated in these two key sets.
And from all this glitz comes Zaza. The alter ego of Albin, partner to Georges, and star of La Cage Aux Folles. We meet her having a minor Diva meltdown before a show, and are later greeted by the full force of Zaza in action. Off stage his Zaza for all the bluster and diva behaviour is vulnerable, worried he has passed his peak as a performer, worried about Georges leaving him and as Albin transformed to Zaza in ‘A Little More Mascara’ there is real vulnerability, and a transformation as make up and costumes allow Albin to create Zaza, something that, even without going quite as far, most of us can relate to. And then Zaza is born.
John Partidge embodies and embraces the drag side of Zaza perfectly. Teasing the audience with some cutting remarks (fair warning, dress appropriately if you’re within her range) a mix of off the cuff remarks, and brilliantly filthy humour really allow Partidge to let loose with that side of Albin. And last night not even a major tumble on the stairs could slow him down- “One for the reviewers” he noted, still in Zaza mode, from this reviewer nothing but respect in getting up in those heels again and carrying on like a true professional. Zaza gets to be sexy and sassy, and entertaining the audiences (with a few choice local references thrown in for fun) which only balances the real heart of Partidge’s performance.
While the glitz and glamour of La Cage are entertaining, it’s the heart of the story that makes this a wonderful musical. Georges and Albin have raised Jean Michele- Georges son, a product of a liaison with a Lido girl 24 years ago- but on announcing his marriage Jean-Michel becomes embarrassed by his parents, particularly Albin. Fearing that his Father in law to be will not approve, Jean-Michele tries to remove Albin and all traces of who his parents really are from their life. Albin, devastated that his love Georges has agreed to this, is heartbroken.
It’s at this moment that he sings the famous ‘I am what I am’ anthem of not just of Drag artistes but misfits the world over. And Partridge here gives it the full emotional clout it deserves- Albin, struggling to stay as Zaza, ever the performer, but torn apart by the fact his son and partner don’t accept him for exactly who he is. The hurt and anguish is clear as he brings the first act down.
In the second act we see he and Georges work things out, through the emotional- and still the hilarious- with a little help from their friends Maid Jacob (Samson Ajewole) and local restaurateur Jaquiline (Marti Webb). With a bit of farce, and a bit more sparkle from the Cagelles, all works out for everyone, with a message that family is what you make it at the heart of all the sparkle.
And it is this emotional heart that really makes both La Cage, and Partridge’s performnace special. . What it eventually comes down to is family. The emotional rednitions of ‘Look Over There’ with Dougie Carter’s sweet and naive Jean Michele realising what is important to him, and Georges proving where his priorities lie. Across these moments John Partridge is at times heartbreaking in his vulnerability and honesty to the performance and the fear of losing what he holds dear.
La Cage is about family and love at it’s heart. And love. The moment at the end, when Albin enters, looking devastatingly handsome, and Georges looks at his love melts even this cynic’s heart every time.