High camp, gloriously sparkly and provocative costumes, plush drapery, champagne; the Menier Chocolate Factory has been transformed into fabulously frilly transvestite revue bar La Cage Aux Folles for the theatre’s latest musical offering. Matthew Amer joined the first night audience for this comic musical tale of family drama, enduring love and being true to yourself.
The Menier’s latest musical production has been beset by illness, twice postponing its press night, yet no-one would have known following last night’s performance. Leading man Douglas Hodge has been suffering with a bronchial infection since before Christmas, but last night – in high heels, mascara and numerous wigs and dresses – any sign of weariness was further from him than a deep butch voice and powerful handshake.
For Hodge, in Jerry Herman’s musical, plays Albin, drag queen par excellence at La Cage who is more melodramatic than a BBC costume drama. What Hodge delivers is not Graham Norton-esque comedy campness, but a sometimes coy, often brazen needy man wanting only to be loved… and to wear outrageous frocks at any opportunity.
To Hodge’s scene stealing Albin, Philip Quast delivers a cleverly understated, reserved, but deeply loving Georges, Albin’s partner and the owner of La Cage. The pair complement each other in life and on the stage.
When Georges’s son, who has been raised by the homosexual couple, announces that he intends to marry the daughter of a prominent moralistic politician, and that the in-laws are coming to visit, the unorthodox family is thrown into panic. The suggestion that Albin makes himself scarce is met with predictable drama.
A musical set in a drag bar could not fail to be camp. David Farley, once more providing the design for a Menier musical, has created a world of pink curtains and Judy Garland memorabilia. La Cage’s chorus, Les Cagelles, all dragged up to the nines – apart from the one woman, Kay Murphy, playing a man playing a woman – possess pins that many of the fairer sex would gladly give their right leg to own, and perform Lynne Page’s choreography with an exuberant sense of fun and sex.
Jason Pennycooke, as butler/maid/wannabe performer Jacob, turns the camp affectation up to ten, fabulously flouncing his way through the show.
Herman’s catchy score blends the sexy playfulness of club number La Cage Aux Folles with the deep sentimentality of Song On The Sand and Look Over There, and the anthem for individuality and acceptance, I Am What I Am.
But it is the central combination of Hodge and Quast, under the subtle direction of Terry Johnson, that gives a musical which could so easily escape into the realms of cheap vulgarity and stereotype, a beating heart. In their relationship, the truth of an enduring love cuts through the glitter and the glamour, providing a warm ‘aaaah’ to go with all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ohs’ of the club scenes.
La Cage Aux Folles plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 8 March.