Park Theatre, London – until 21 March 2020
Based on Simon Callow’s English translation, this version of La Cage aux Folles stays true to the original French text. Callow’s edits and new dialogue has given us a fresh interpretation which is arch and bubbling with hilariously sharp one-liners.
Callow serves up a delicious slice of the high camp and haute couture of drag from the 1970s French Riviera. Farce is one of the most difficult forms of comedy to get right, as it is so OTT and uses different comedic techniques, requiring exact timing and delivery. Callow’s La Cage has the physicality of a great farce including; the slapstick, visual gags and the wordplay. The double entendres are classier than those in Carry On films because they are clever, witty and very funny. The performances are superb, provoking raucous laughter from all of us in the audience. How do the actors manage to keep such straight faces? This well-choreographed play has a brilliant cast, who are so in sync, that they make everything look effortless and the absurdities inherent in farce real.
Michael Matus is Georges, a serious businessman who is the owner of the eponymous drag club, whose anger and frustration seems to be inspired by Basil Fawlty. Paul Hunter is Albin, the main drag artist in the club. He dials up the drama as the sensitive diva; easily wounded but quick-witted, firing acerbic one-liners, mostly at Georges, his lover, business and life partner. They live together above the drag club. They make a fantastic comedy double act, as their personalities complement each other, with Georges as the “straight” man. Louise Bangay is fierce as the formidable yet pragmatic Madame Priedieu who, channelling Margaret Thatcher, doesn’t hesitate to do what it takes to prevent her and her husband, a right-wing Christian politician played by Simon Hepworth, from being discovered and papped by the press in the drag club. Hepworth doubles up as another drag act, Mercedes, whom I definitely prefer.
Arthur Hughes is Laurent, Georges’ son. Laurent is young and in love with the Priedieus’ daughter Simone and is desperate to be accepted by her bigoted parents to allow them to be married. Hughes’ Laurent is rather self-centred and spoilt for demanding that Georges makeover; the apartment, his life as Albin’s partner and owner of a drag club to appear straight in preparation for the Priedieus’ visiting Georges and Albin’s home. The situation rapidly unravels due to a series of misunderstandings and mishaps; the ensuing mayhem is really funny.
Sarah Lam is great as the ex-dancer and glamourous socialite Simone, Laurent’s mother, who left Laurent as a baby to be raised by his father, Georges and has barely seen Laurent until he summons her to play happy families with Georges.
Syrus Lowe steals the show as Jacob, who is Georges and Albin’s scantily clad, shrieking servant, whose burning ambition is to be a drag artiste in their club. Lowe’s Jacob stands out, not just because of his semi-nude physique, nor his various costume changes, including gorgeous stilettos, but because of how well he uses his excellent comic timing; from his vocal and facial expressions through to the way he moves. Jacob, seemingly dizzy and frothy, gambols through scenes except one scene when he seems to be crippled by unfamiliar footwear. At first, I did have a fleeting moment of unease regarding the dynamics of a black servant to white people, who is obviously eye candy and spends the majority of the play half- naked. However, as Callow has explained, Jacob is written to intentionally mock the white stereotypes of black people. Jacob is in charge of his narrative; he decides what he will do and grabs any opportunity for self-expression and enjoyment, finally achieving his greatest wish. I also enjoy the fact that Lowe appears to relish playing Jacob. Indeed you get the impression that the whole cast are enjoying their roles. Perhaps that’s because La Cage aux Folles, littered with French phrases which would appear pretentious, if you didn’t remember that it’s a French play, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Although, as Callow has stated, homosexuality was not illegal in France, prevailing attitudes were at best disapproving and at worst bigoted. As a straight up farce La Cage aux Folles is a clever pantomime for grown-ups. But there is more to it than that, it works as a social and political satire, using comedy to critique the press and the attitude of 1970s France to homosexuality, gender fluidity and male heterosexuality, including caricaturing how a “real man” should behave.
This drag farce is a marriage of equals; deliberately exaggerated, irreverent, silly, satirical and fun, fun, fun, with fabulous frocks, thanks to the skills of the Costume Supervisor. Whether or not farce is your guilty pleasure, like chocolate is for me, it’s fine to indulge once in a while, especially when the ingredients are such top quality that they form an essential part of a balanced diet.