sat 13/04/2024

La Cage Aux Folles, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - 40 years on, the drag show still entertains and educates | reviews, news & interviews

La Cage Aux Folles, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - 40 years on, the drag show still entertains and educates

La Cage Aux Folles, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - 40 years on, the drag show still entertains and educates

Feelgood show acquires added poignancy on an emotional night

They are what they are: Carl Mullaney and the Cagelles in 'La Cage Aux Folles'Johan Persson

Forty years ago, the world was very different for gay men. AIDS was devastating their communities, especially in the big cities where hard-won enclaves of acceptance were being hollowed out, one sunken-eyed friend after another. Media screamed “Gay Plague” and some politicians barely suppressed their glee at the “perverts’” comeuppance.

Allies were thin on the ground, the redtop press with their finger on the outing trigger never happier than when destroying lives for circulation.

Into such a hostile, fearful, vicious world, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman launched La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway, a feelgood show about two gay men in Saint-Tropez set against the backdrop of a nightclub drag show. It must have been a tricky sell to the backers – but, four decades on and after many revivals around the world, the show returns in triumph to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Like Georges and Albin, they have made a good decision.The men are the owner and star turn respectively of the eponymous cabaret, whom we first meet bickering like the old married couple they are, Georges slightly shifty, a born ducker and diver; Albin as much drama queen offstage as drag queen onstage, but we see the love between them and we sense that it’s going to be tested.

And it soon is when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (raised by the couple from a toddler) arrives on the Riviera to announce that he’s to be married to the daughter of the very same rightwing politician campaigning to close La Cage down! A contrivance? Sure, but we roll with it and see the dilemma facing Jean-Michel’s parents who have lived so easily in their own world when the bigoted, blinded outsiders gatecrash their fragile subculture. As ever with the rich and powerful, buttressed by entitlement and wilful ignorance, they’re not going to change, so should Georges and, especially, the cross-dressing Albin?

If the plot requires a stretching of credibility, give it the benefit of the doubt and you’ll be rewarded with a tremendous night out. On his farewell show as artistic director before departing for the Donmar, Tim Sheader commands this often tricky space to create the illusion of an intimate cabaret, the showgirls filling the stage in a variety of increasingly outrageous costumes, Ryan Dawson Laight dragging up six footers and five footers, rake thin and comfortably built, men who look like women and men who look like men. The message is clear. Drag queens walk amongst us, just waiting their turn to find their true expression – their otherworldliness is the product of imagination and talent, even when reading books in public libraries. And who, really, can fear that?

Another problem which can raise its head in the open air (in plenty of other theatres too to be fair) is sound, but Nick Lidster for Autograph creates a gorgeous soundscape allowing Ben van Tienen’s nine piece band to play some of the 20th century’s most loved musical theatre songs with the gusto they require. 

None of this matters much if the performances are drowned by the spectacle but here they’re not. The Cagelles arrive in ever-more spectacular costumes to perform ever-more elaborate routines (by Stephen Mear in top form) and their bitching is witty and warm. Hemi Yeroham delivers a tremendous turn as the lusty stage manager, Francis, having a lot of fun with the towering Hanna (Jak Allen-Anderson), and Shakeel Kimotho gets her fair share of one-liners in as the maid, Jacob, who dreams of stardom.

The show turns on whether we buy the steadfast love that anchors the central relationship, the solid centre amidst the whirlpool of the glamour and the gaudy. Billy Carter’s Georges (pictured above, with Daniele Coombe, Debbie Kurup and Carl Mullaney) makes for a lovable chancer, the cabaret compère who has the glint of Emcee’s eye, but none of his malevolence. Carter sings beautifully, and he continually (to me at least) suggested an answer to the question, “What would Leslie Phillips be like were he gay?” You feel his dilemma when torn between the son he loves and the man he loves, without evident sadness overwhelming his upbeat nature: not an easy acting brief, but pitched perfectly.

That said, the show sits on Carl Mullaney’s amply padded shoulders. His Albin/Zaza is the receptacle for all the turmoil of rejection and acceptance, not just within the world of the play but outside, where the forces of reaction represented by his fiancee’s father, Edward Dindon, are once more on the march. It’s a burden he carries with a supreme lightness of touch in the comic moments and a shattering emotional depth in the showstopping “I Am What I Am” anthem that closes the first half. He should keep his diary free when the awards season rolls round.

While the wonderfully optimistic song, “The Best Of Times” captured the show’s upbeat philosophy, there was a postscript to on the night I saw it and it’s a postscript to the review too. 

Forty years ago, the world was different for gay men, but not as different as might have been claimed just 24 hours earlier. Two men had been stabbed outside The Two Brewers in Clapham while one of the chorus was performing inside, a show attended by some of the cast, caught in the backwash and horror of an unashamedly homophobic attack. In London, In 2023. Mullaney, voice cracking a little, spoke to a shocked audience at the curtain and told us that the cast and creatives (like us) stood with the victims.

My reflection making my way through the darkness of the park was that things were better, but not right, resistance still the only answer to the reaction, filtered through the love that suffused the previous two hours. Oh, and call the attack what it was - terrorism - and treat it as such in the justice system.             

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