Review: La Cage aux Folles, Open Air Theatre

It is what it is – La Cage aux Folles receives a gorgeously queer revival at the Open Air Theatre

“It’s rather gaudy but it’s also rather grand”

It’s a good few years now since London has seen a production of La Cage aux Folles, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s well-intentioned production transferring into the West End in 2009 to become something of a stunt casting vehicle (John Barrowman, Graham Norton…), albeit a highly entertaining one. As Timothy Sheader revives it again as his farewell production for the Open Air Theatre (he’s off to the Donmar as part of the Great 2023 AD shuffle), mainstream culture now has a fascinatingly different approach to drag and it pays dividends here.

Situated definitively in the 1970s, (the tulle-draped silhouettes of Ryan Dawson Laight’s costumes are an absolute dream) there’s nonetheless a to-the-moment sharpness to the choreography of the Cagelles (Stephen Mear, assisted by Ebony Molina), a rigour and professionalism to their routines that pays full homage to the full-on commitment of drag performers, rather than pandering for easy laughs. Not only that, the incorporation of drag kings and mustachioed queens into the troupe adds to the inclusive warmth that underscores the world of the St Tropez nightclub being evoked here.

That eponymous nightclub is run by Georges and headlined by his partner Albin who performs as Zaza. Played beautifully by Billy Carter and Carl Mullaney respectively, they’re living their best queer lives on the Riviera, only the arrival of their son Jean-Michel with news of his engagement to the daughter of some ferociously conservative parents threatens to shatter that Mediterranean calm. And whilst often played for camp and comedy, Harvey Fierstein’s book has a painfully sharp edge to it that I’ve never clocked so clearly as I did here.

The betrayal that provokes the singing of ‘I Am What I Am’ always stings hard but something about the authenticity of the portrayals here really hammers home the cruelty of its femme-shaming versus the superficial (but still real) safety offered through the false holy grail of being straight-acting. It cuts like a knife and Mullaney absolutely kills it, the pain etched on Carter’s face and Ben Culleton’s Jean-Michel a bitter, belated realisation of how much they have asked of one who loves them so much.

Around them, one of Jerry Herman’s best scores swirls with swooningly good melodies. The love suffused in songs like ‘Song on the Sand’ and ‘Look Over There’ could warm even an audience sat outside in a British summer and Ben Van Tienan’s musical direction keeps the score sounding sunkissed and fresh. And in a touch of luxury casting in the ensemble, Debbie Kurup shimmers as a Mackem-tinged Jacqueline and John Owen-Jones keeps his booming tenor largely under wraps as the bigoted M Dindon.

Lest I succumb issuing nothing but praise, there is a slight imbalance in the structure of the show, in that too much and too many supporting characters are shoved into the second act, meaning there’s not quite as much character development for, say, the Dindons. Sophie Pourret’s Anne (who could really be introduced properly in the first act) has little opportunity to establish her independent thinking from her parents, who likewise become a tad caricaturish in the rush to denouement (Julie Jupp does make the most of her moment to shine though).

But I’m spliting ostrich feathers really, this is a joyous production of a joyous musical but more significantly, a queer production of a queer musical. Lord knows how it will fare with the unpredictablity of this British summer but it is worth the risk of getting soaked for.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson (main shot and first pic); Mark Senior (second pic)
La Cage aux Folles is booking at Open Air Theatre until 16th September

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