We might have hoped by now that a play about having to hide your sexuality for the sake of ‘respectability’ could have been safely considered historical, but Martin Connor’s sumptuous revival of La Cage Aux Folles – with its right-wing politicians refusing to recognise any style of family but their own – sadly feels more relevant than ever.
Adrian Zmed is Georges, owner of the titular club and lover of its ageing star attraction, Albin/Zaza (John Partridge). Georges’ son Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter, all smooth charm and youthful entitlement) announces he is marrying the daughter of a local politician, Dindon (Paul F Monaghan), a man who wants to close all the clubs for the sake of ‘morality’. Jean-Michele asks that, in a spectacularly ill-advised Meet the Parents scenario, the flamboyant Albin is shoved back into the closet and replaced with his previously absent biological mother. Instead of chastising his son for the ungrateful little shit that he is and pointing out that no amount of catchy ballads attesting to undying love make up for the fact that he is lying to his fiancée, not just her parents, Georges reluctantly agrees, thereby setting up a showdown that raises questions about love, family, and identity, whatever shape they come in.
There’s an awful lot to love about this production, beyond its basic message of tolerance. The performances are universally strong: Zmed’s Georges is an ageing charmer, fierce in his work but a soft touch for those he loves, even when it goes against his better judgement. Partridge’s Albin is a heady mix of glitz, glamour and insecurity, but the decision to play him in flat Northern vowels works surprisingly well, especially in the ‘cabaret’ scene when he banters with the audience: it hints at an inner steeliness, an act honed in working men’s clubs where a drag queen learns fast to take no shit whatsoever, while also conjuring the overprotective Northern matriarch, ready to sacrifice her happiness for her son.
Partridge handles both Albin the needy partner and Zaza the brassy star equally well. His rendition of the show-stopper I Am What I Am is properly heart-rending, and as the plot to erase him from Jean-Michele’s history unravels, that hidden strength emerges. At the performance I attended, by the dinner party scene the audience was loudly audible in its support for Albin (at one stage, Dindon disputes that two men can be parents, while standing in front of the couple: ‘Where are the parents? I don’t see parents here!’ he rages, only for one audience member to helpfully point out ‘They’re behind you!’).
The supporting cast do well with roles that are thinly written. Marti Webb is criminally underused as Jacqueline, though when she does get to unleash That Voice, she makes the most of it. Su Douglas is a quiet joy as the oppressed Marie, inspired to defiance, Monaghan is suitably stuffy as her politician husband, and though Alexandra Robinson has little to do as Anne, she is pleasing enough for it to be believable that she has steered Jean-Michele from his womanising ways.
Gary McCann’s set and costumes are gorgeous and the set pieces are done with panache by the glorious Cagelles, but the direction could have been tighter, and the first half feels overlong. Jerry Herman’s music is timeless, but Harvey Fierstein’s book has aged less well – despite being updated with some topical jokes, there are times when it jars against a 21st century view of gender, and although Samson Ajewole skilfully milks the part of Jacob for every laugh he can get, his role still disappointingly amounts to ‘sassy black character’.
But these are relatively small crimes in a piece with such a big heart. While it’s a story with family at its core, there’s something genuinely lovely about not only seeing an affectionate relationship between two men, but two older men: they have weathered life’s disappointments, seen the sheen fade and the glamour wear thin, but they are still tender, still together, while aware of all their faults. So while La Cage remains a barnstormer of a show – brassy and funny and fabulous to look at – it also packs a real emotional punch, and is a defiant reminder that in tough times there are worse ways to face life than with a little guts, and a lot of glitter.
La Cage aux Folles runs until 26 August 2017 in Brighton, and then continues touring. Click here for more details.