La Cage aux Folles @ Playhouse Theatre, London

cast list
Denis Lawson, Douglas Hodge, Nolan Frederick, Nicholas Cunningham, Darren Carnall, Gary Murphy, Dane Quixall, Ben Bunce, Adrian Der Gregorian, Jason Pennycooke, Stuart Neal, Alcicia Davies, Tracie Bennett, Iain Mitchell, Paula Wilcox, Ben Derry, Leanne Harwood, Robert Maskell

directed by
Terry Johnson
The history of La Cage Aux Folles speaks for itself.

Starting life as a play in 1973, it was made into a film in 1978, a Broadway musical in 1983 and another film (The Birdcage) in 1996.

La Cage therefore proved long ago that it had staying power, and so my hopes were high as I attended this revival of the Broadway musical, transferring to the Playhouse Theatre following its recent run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

But, in the event, this production missed the mark about as many times as it hit it.

La Cage Aux Folles is set in a nightclub of the same name in St. Tropez, where the leather-clad, long-legged transvestites, the ‘Cagelles’, perform nightly.
The club owner, Georges, is happy with his lover, Albin who becomes the famous Za-Za on stage but their happiness is shattered when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, declares his intention to marry Anne. This is because her father, M. Dindon, is leader of the ‘Tradition, Family and Morality Party’, and wishes to close down all the clubs.

In the farce that ensues there is both heartbreak, as Georges tells Albin he doesn’t want him to meet M. Dindon, and comedy as Albin then pretends to be Jean-Michel’s own mother when the man visits. As a result, the show requires the fun, the glamour and the glitz of the club to be carefully balanced alongside the serious questions concerning being true to oneself and loyal to one’s own.

In this production, however, it wasn’t that one element was sacrificed in order to fulfil the other, which wouldn’t have been so bad. Rather, in trying to do justice to both the serious and the comic aspects, it seldom delivered on either front. The show opened strongly enough as the stage’s sensuously silky curtains rose to reveal the six Cagelles in silhouette before they then burst into their opening dance. They were then met, however, with two leads who in Act One seemed profoundly uncomfortable in their roles.

Denis Lawson, new to the role of Georges, lacked appropriate mastery of the stage, which was especially disappointing since he was playing the part of a compre. His apparent reserve worked on some occasions, allowing him to contrast with the more flamboyant Albin, but on others he went off the boil completely and delivered some lines almost in monotone. In contrast, Douglas Hodge, reprising his role of Albin from the Menier, seemed to be trying too hard. He did not lack panache, but his gestures never felt effortless, and, as the two danced together, both concentrated too much on their portraying their own respective characters, and not enough on establishing any kind of rapport with each other.

These weaknesses came to a head in Act One’s finale when Albin, feeling dejected at the news that Georges doesn’t want M. Dindon to meet him, takes to the stage as Za-Za to sing I Am What I Am. This song should either rip us apart emotionally, or have us rolling about the aisles with laugher, but it did neither. Hodge’s performance felt too large to wrench at our hearts, but still too thoughtful and considered to appeal simply as a top notch cabaret turn. It was therefore left to the leathered, feathered chorus to apply a far more successful sense of intrigue and menace to the song with their raunchy and highly physical dancing.

Elsewhere things were more successful. In admittedly less demanding roles than the leads, Stuart Neal as Jean-Michel, Iain Mitchell as M. Dindon, and Nolan Frederick as the most screaming of the Cagelles, Chantal, all delivered nicely. The Playhouse’s West End setting also felt more appropriate for the piece than the Menier’s more rough and ready interior. True, a greater restraint had to be exercised, which meant there were no velvet curtains or fairy lights hanging over the theatre’s entrance this time. This was, however, compensated for by the more upmarket setting that imbued the show with greater glamour and glitz. As at the Menier, some audience members were seated at tables and the cast interacted with them, but, unlike there, the actors had to lean down from the stage to do so. If at first this felt a little awkward, overall it kept the interactions more under wraps and so ensured that they felt less forced.

And then in Act Two something special happened. Here, the scene where Albin was forced to perform in a restaurant under the pretence of being Jean-Michel’s mother, created the type of all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza that you just didn’t want to end. It worked so well, however, precisely because Albin was forced to be slightly more reserved, and thus allowed Hodge to adopt a subtler style. The audience was consequently treated to a series of roaringly entertaining songs, in which the ensemble provided the fun with their dancing and capers, whilst Hodge prevailed on a higher level with his sheer power of presence.

All this was enough to raise the overall standard of the show from ‘mediocre’ to ‘enjoyable’, and, in many ways, Act Two fulfilled all that could have been expected of it. It’s just a shame though that after such a lengthy and erratic first half, it all felt rather a long time coming.

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