Tim Sheader’s 16-year tenure as artistic director of Regent Park’s Open Air Theatre ends with a blaze of colour and a timely punch in the air for self-expression. His production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s musical ‘La Cage aux Folles’ – based on the play by Jean Poiret – lights up the night sky.
Georges (Billy Carter) manages the titular San Tropez drag nightclub, whose star attraction is his partner, Albin (Carl Mullaney), who performs as the fabulous Zaza. Their lives are thrown into chaos when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (Ben Culleton), announces he wants to marry Anne (Sophie Pourret), whose father is the bigoted head of the anti-drag Tradition, Family and Morality Party. And guess who’s imminently arriving to see if their prospective son-in-law comes from the ‘right’ family?
Current right-wing scaremongering over drag acts and people’s right to claim their own identities inevitably casts a shadow of renewed relevancy over this show. In this light, Sheader really brings to the fore in Fierstein and Herman’s book and lyrics the warm and genuine sense of family that binds everyone at the club together. Mullaney’s rendition of the anthemic ‘I Am What I Am’ ends defiantly, but starts on a note of heartbroken betrayal at discovering Jean-Michel doesn’t want Albin – who's raised him since he was a child in the absence of his mother – to meet Anne’s parents because he's ‘different’.
The wonderful Mullaney threads this vulnerability throughout his performance, starting with ‘(A Little More) Mascara’, a gorgeous ode to the empowering effect of putting on drag. He and Carter, as Georges, create a sweepingly romantic relationship amid the manager-star squabbling. ‘With You on My Arm’ acts as a gentle echo and counterpoint to Jean-Michel’s ‘With Anne on My Arm’ – making the latter’s insistence on erasing any trace of Albin even more painful. While a sweet Culleton softens a few of Jean-Michel’s edges, he’s still a self-absorbed dick for most of the show.
In case you’re worried that this is making the production sound heavy-going, don’t be – Mullaney plays up to us – the in-story and actual audience – with winking ease. Sheader, choreographer Stephen Mear and costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight also ensure that the club’s resident drag queen (and king) ensemble, The Cagelles, brim with individuality. The big set-piece numbers are staged with pizzazz and humour, showcasing each character’s diversity. Shakeel Kimotho’s puckish turn as Albin’s maid, Jacob, is a delight.
It makes a heel-turn into drawing-room farce after the interval, when Anne’s parents arrive, which quickens the pace and the laughter rate. It’s a welcome pivot after the more emotional first act, tying everything together a little more tightly as the show barrels towards its life-affirming climax. The way in which Anne’s awful father, Edward Dindon – played by Craig Armstrong on the night I saw the show and John Owen-Jones the rest of the run – gets his bewigged comeuppance is beautifully fitting. This is a big blow-out of a show that wraps up as a gloriously camp celebration of found family and living exactly as who you are. It needs no apology.