Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh – 11 March 2017
High kicks and high camp dominate La Cage Aux Folles, at the Playhouse, as it explodes in a glorious melange of sequins, feathers and a timely political message wrapped up in an over-sugared package. In times such as ours, when false news dominates and the forces of prejudice are seeking to undermine and reverse the advances of equality achieved in the years since La Cage‘s 1983 premiere, that political message is all the more timely.
The whole of Bill Kenwright’s production of Jerry Hewrman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical is staged as a performance at San Tropez’s leading drag cabaret, the titular Cage Aux Folles. Gary McCann’s design is excellently conceived: glittering, camp and morphing seamlessly between scenes – yet always, somehow, the cabaret stage.
Georges, the cabaret’s compere and owner, lives above the shop with his husband of 20 years Albin who, as drag queen ZaZa, is the star of the nightly cabaret below. Adrian Zmed oversees it all as a smooth, perhaps even unctuous, Georges. If not the greatest mover, he has the vocal chops for the role – Song on the Sand, his declaration of love for Albin, is a beautiful thing, fitting for any romance. That Georges has an ulterior motive is not the point.
A seven-strong drag chorus give the cabaret stage show a sense of reality. High kicks and risqué lyrics, not to mention quick changes of outrageous outfits add up to a class act – but it is director Martin Connor’s credit that it is not too smooth. These girls’ individual characters still flash beneath the sequins.
Against Georges’s equanimity, there needs to be some dramatic bite. And it isn’t going to come from Marti Webb as local restaurateur Jacqueline, although she has the vocal necessities. Sadly, for all the splendour of her delivery, she is never asked to do anything more than ensure that role works as a plot device.
John Partridge (EastEnders’ Christian Clarke), however, has plenty of drama and even more bite as Alvin. Partridge knows how to ramp up the melodrama between Alvin and Georges as their relationship is challenged – but really comes out in his drag act.
When it comes to his solo spot, Partridge works that audience. Hard. It’s the kind of routine that pantomime fans will love – a bit of audience interaction, banter with the band, pouncing on a slip-up from the follow-spot operator – just generally a whole gut load of ad-libbing and taking the show off-piste.
There’s a few well-researched local references and topical gags, too. Then, when he brings it back to the song, he has the vocal range for numbers like A Little More Mascara and when he gets in among the emotional action on such as I Am What I Am, the whole thing just begins to fly.
The crux of the drama is the declaration by Georges’ son, Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter), that he is to get married. It’s not that the fiancé Anne (Alexandra Robinson) is a girl – or even that she is the daughter of a right-wing politician Dindon whose manifesto includes closing down the transvestite clubs of the Riviera. But Jean-Michele has invited the family to stay and is demanding a “normal” family life to show them.
The resulting disruption of Georges and Alvin’s domestic life is heightened several notches by Samson Ajewole as Jocob, Alvin’s cross-dressing maid and a wannabe drag artiste. Ajewole brings plenty to the table, using his lanky frame for great physical comic effect, revelling in his costumes and delivering his reaction grimaces with perfect timing.
It is giving little away to say that the threat from Dindon is effectively neutralised – with solid turns from Paul F Monaghan as Dindon and Su Douglas as his wife Marie. They were were always going to get their comeuppance and the threat from their completely dysfunctional (supposedly moral) lifestyle to Georges and Alvin’s demonstrably successful family life, laughed out of town.
It all seems remarkably prescient, this married gay family written 35 years ago, long before the advent of same-sex marriage. Yet, as the increasingly loud and empowered voices of the anti-diversity brigade shows, it isn’t enough to laugh at the ludicrousness of prejudice to make it go away.
That said, this is a properly up-tempo, feel-good night out, delivered with flair from the stage and a strong understanding of what is needed from the pit.