Wimbledon Theatre, London – until 1 April 2017
The first thing to say about the tour of La Cage Aux Folles is it has to be Bill Kenwright’s most generous production to date: no expense has been spared in beautifully detailed sets – some stunning cut-metal and mirror work in Gary McCann’s design – or the costumes which take silver and gold lurex to new and extravagant heights, but always in the best of taste – even if that’s from Chicago rather than La Cage.
Nor is headliner John Partridge anything less than a full-on star recognised equally for his achievements in EastEnders and as Zach in the Palladium’s A Chorus Line – and I’m sure he doesn’t tour for eight months on equity minimum. Unfortunately, in Martin Connor’s misjudged production, it’s one song sheet shy of a pantomime.
Since, like Partridge, I was born in Radcliffe, I would be the first to defend its accent – and it’s perfectly possible that a drag queen from this suburb of Bury should have met an ex-pat American twenty years his senior and moved with him to open a night-club on the French Riviera. But it isn’t likely. And it’s even less likely that the accent would have survived twenty years of la vie en rose in St Tropez with quite the undiluted brutality Partridge retains for his portrayal of Albin.
At the very least, it’s unbalancing for the story – as also is the casting of Adrian Zmed, once everyone’s favourite uniformed heart-throb as William Shatner’s rookie sidekick in American police series T J Hooker filmed about the time Partridge was doing his 11+ at Radcliffe Hall Primary School. Radcliffe Hall. Did no-one on the Education committee ‘know’ what that sounded like?
I know La Cage aux Folles is not holy writ, and is fair game for modernization – and that, as with Kinky Boots, no contemporary theatre audiences need a lesson in gender identity, but this does subtract something from the emotional power of the show.
Although immensely capable of singing and playing the part as originally written, Partridge has been encouraged to broaden the character of Albin/Zaza into a ‘dame’ who engages with the audience directly. This requires cracking topical jokes and questioning the fashion sense of the front row in a routine lifted from Dame Edna in about 1976 and adopted by every provincial drag queen in a sticky-floored pub since. Being an actor rather than a stand-up comedian, he doesn’t quite make this shine. His constant pouting and side-glances to the audience also undermine the natural pathos in many of the songs and upstage Zmed so that both ‘Look Over There’ and ‘Song on the Sand’ suffer as a result. Particularly as he wears what looks like a chador for one of them.
From my extensive audience survey (well the four gay men from New Malden behind me who wanted their money back) I’d say audiences divide between the girls/grans’ night out who ‘loved it’ and anyone who’d seen an earlier or more emotional version who didn’t. But there’s more of the former so I guess Kenwright and Partridge are just playing to the paying crowd.
Elsewhere, Marti Webb seems like a spare part, never quite adopted in to the action as Jacqueline even in her own restaurant, and if you’ve seen how elegantly the disapproving French parents are played by Jane Asher and Julian Forsyth in the tremendous An American in Paris, you won’t be impressed by Su Douglas and Paul F Monaghan.
Dougie Carter fares better as Jean-Michele with a nice timbre to his singing voice and while it’s a good joke to have such a tall Jacob in Samson Ajewole it’s a cartoon performance and I wondered why no-one had thought to phone Le Gateau Chocolat.