La Cage Aux Folles @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Douglas Hodge
Philip Quast
Jason Pennycooke
Neil McDermott
Alicia Davies
Una Stubbs
Iain Mitchell
Tara Hugo
Nolan Frederick
Nicholas Cunningham
Spencer Stafford
Kay Murphy
Mark John Richardson
Lee Ellis
Sebastien Torkia
Philip Riley
Mark Inscoe

directed by
Terry Johnson
The entrance to the Menier Chocolate Factory has been draped with red velvet.

For the theatre’s revival of this 1983 musical, the designer David Farley has attempted to inject a little cabaret magic into the space. So, alongside the curtained and fairy light bedecked entranceway, some of the bench seating has been replaced with tables and chairs, and another curtain, this time of gaudy pink silk, dominates the stage.

La Cage Aux Folles is set in a St Tropez transvestite club, an explosion of big wigs, sequined corsets, cheap innuendo and high heels. The club is owned by Georges (played by an impressively moustachioed Philip Quast) and the headline act is his lover Albin, who performs in drag – with stomach firmly girdled – as the glamorous Za-Za.

When Georges’ son Jean-Michel (fathered via a drunken one-nighter) announces he is engaged to the daughter of a right-wing politician, their relationship comes under strain. Jean-Michel wants his actual mother at his side when he meets his future in-laws instead of the ultra-camp Albin, despite the fact that Albin is the one who raised him, whilst his mother gallivanted around Europe. But, of course, events conspire so that it is Albin who ends up posing as Georges’ demure wife in front of the conservative Dindons.

La Cage is a robust thing, cropping up, in various incarnations, both on stage and screen (it was filmed as The Birdcage in 1996, with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in the leads). The original Broadway musical, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music by Jerry Herman including the anthemic I Am What I Am was particularly popular. I suspect this is because, beneath the froth and farce and silliness, the story has a great big soft heart, and its messages, about love and acceptance and about how limiting the traditional view of what makes a family can be, still resonate.

Unfortunately, though Terry Johnson’s revival captures all this in a solidly entertaining fashion, it neither revels in camp excesses nor taps into the poignancy of the couple’s situation as much as it might. Though competent and enjoyable, it’s a rather tepid production; it contains a few shimmering moments, but otherwise it’s somewhat flat. Neither Quast nor Douglas Hodge, who plays Albin, seem completely at home in their roles, and the sense of shared years is lacking. (It’s worth noting that the opening was postponed due to Hodge’s illness and an understudy, Spencer Stafford, has been playing the role for much of the preview period). They’re not helped by an orchestra that occasionally overwhelms the voices of those on stage.

The best moments come courtesy of the club’s troupe of energetic dancers, Les Cagelles, high-kicking and launching into the splits with aplomb. There’s also a fair bit of audience interaction, innuendo-laced banter and the odd caress, most if it involving those seated at the tables at the front of the stage. This was entertaining, but it felt a tad forced at times, a bit over-practiced, and I wish they’d pushed these segments a little further, took a few more risks. Still, these amusing moments help make this La Cage the fun, breezy thing that it is. It’s just that, given the Menier’s track record with things musical, I was hoping for much more.

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