La Cage Aux Folles at Southwark’s intimate Menier Chocolate Factory, is probably the most infectiously joyous musical production I have seen on the London stage since Trevor Nunn’s 2002 revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. This 1983 Tony Award winning Broadway hit, with a book by Harvey Fierstein (himself and actor and Tony Award winner) and lyrics and music by Jerry Herman, is given a rip roaringly entertaining, beautiful looking and hugely amusing production by one of our leading living playwright turned directors, Terry Johnson, in a startlingly successful theatre that has given me many an evening of theatrical bliss and intellectual interest since it was launched in 2004, and is now an integral part of the London theatre landscape (their superb revival of Sunday in the Park with George is about to open on Broadway, and the importance of the theatre continues to grow).
Firstly let me say that La Cage is not a deep, particularly insightful or penetrating show (nor is it meant to be), it is a musical firmly in the light comedy tradition, it is not comparable to a Sondheim masterpiece (coincidentally Sunday in the Park débuted off Broadway in the same year as La Cage); it is essentially a divertissement with a side order of celebratory life affirmation, which is not to say that the production lacks moments of considerable pathos. The story is simple; young man wants his gay parents (a French Riviera nightclub owner and his partner and star attraction of their club, a wondrous drag queen called Albin/Zaza) to disavow their lifestyle and relationship in order to fool and thereby placate their son’s fiancée’s conservative and fiercely homophobic parents (her father is a Deputy in the National Assembly and the ‘moral conscience of the Riviera’).
The musical makes a strident and unashamed statement about difference, and in particular some (rather fabulous) homosexual life choices, and it certainly reflects the different morality of the early 1980s, which actually makes the show even more escapist for a 2008 audience (we see the central dilemma of social concealment versus flagrant honesty in a much more casual light than in the dark days of President Reagan, conservative values and AIDS, which is not to say that a rightwing President, conservative values and AIDS aren’t all still with us today, but the world has changed radically all the same). The show was written at a time when the fundamental need of homosexuals to shield their lifestyles and bow to conventional morality was beginning to wane, after the gay sexual liberation movement became more mainstream in the 1970s; the show say we’re here and we’re queer after initially going along with, and then revealing as false and untenable, the easier path of lies and concealment, a life which would have been familiar to many of the 1983 gay audience members.
The show takes us on a journey onto a glamorous world of transvestite show girls, red velvet curtains and hedonistic enjoyment, which firmly takes us away from the everyday experiences of our (or at least my) everyday lives. But as well as being a traditionally escapist show, it also highlights the importance of celebrating and accepting difference and indeed yourself (as shows like Wicked and Hairspray continue to do now), but again the show also has a traditional moral view of the importance of family life (even if that family is unconventional), and at its centre a committed and long term relationship (although between two men). The creators of this show are not only singing a hymn to different lifestyles and asking for unconditional acceptance of that difference, but it is also demonstrating that homosexual morality, whilst on the surface may be different, can be in essence linked to heterosexual morality, and that people yearn for the same things ultimately. This point was made forcefully to me, when leaving the sold out performance I attended, seeing elderly men and women praising the show to the rafters, now seemingly totally comfortable with a musical about family loving flamboyant homosexuals (this is no Ravenhill shocker!).
The performances are excellent, with the superb Douglas Hodge perfectly playing Albin (the drag queen) with so much camp flair and knowing wit, and making his torch song ‘I Am What I Am’, an electrifying end to act one. Philip Quast as Georges, the patron of the nightclub, is as ever, in fine voice, I only regretted that we didn’t hear enough of his memorable singing (what would be enough?). Les Cagelles, the mostly male chorus at our eponymous nightclub are a formidable presence; you would certainly not want to cross these large and beautifully done up men in a dark alleyway. Una Stubbs also makes the most of her small part with a memorable transformation as the right wing politician’s wife.
Johnson’s director is nifty and uses the small stage space to great effect, but the design by David Farley and invigorating choreography by Lynne Page also deserve star billing. The music is almost besides the point, whatever the 6 Cagelles and Zaza (Albin) sing in their outré costumes (by Matthew Wright), would make a great impression on the audience, but luckily the tunes are catchy, with a band of seven musicians, sitting above either side of the stage, giving the score some Broadway vigor.
This production certainly deserves a West End transfer, for such an exuberant and brilliantly performed entertainment cries out to be seen by a larger audience (despite suiting the intimate venue perfectly). A must see for any lovers of the musical, or just those in search of an almost flawlessly enjoyable night out.