‘La Cage aux Folles’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
La Cage aux Folles, Park Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Mark Douet

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Simon Callow’s new, non-musical adaptation finds the bitter heart of Jean Poiret’s classic gay comedy

This is not ‘La Cage aux Folles’ the musical. I repeat: this is not La Cage aux Folles’ the musical. If you were coming expecting ‘I Am What I Am’, just hum it quietly to yourself. This version is adapted by Simon Callow from Jean Poiret’s original 1973 play. While there’s definitely drag involved, it’s much more of a backstage affair.

The story’s the same. The lives of Georges and Albin – his partner and star drag act at La Cage aux Folles, the gay nightclub he runs in Saint Tropez – are thrown into chaos when Georges’s son, Laurent, announces he’s marrying the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician and that he’s invited her parents to visit.

Poiret’s play was heralded as groundbreaking at the time for foregrounding not only a gay relationship but a gay family set-up. Watching it now is a sometimes strange experience. Wisely, Callow has kept the ’70s firmly in the frame. This is a tale from a different era. And while the setting might be the French Riviera, this is more Danny La Rue than the high-def gloss of ‘Drag Race’.

Callow’s translation of the French into idiomatic English works best in the furious barbs the harassed characters fling at each other. As Georges, Michael Matus is particularly good at making the funny bits sing, his eyes bulging as he seems perpetually on the edge of a breakdown. 

But without the show tunes and jazzy choreography of the musical, you’re left with a more bitter aftertaste. Director Jez Bond is careful to have us laughing with the gay characters on stage, rather than at them, keeping the tone highly performative and 360-degree absurd. And yet – while he’s not as blithely horrible as he is in the 1978 film version, another product of its time – Laurent remains a monumental dick for expecting his dad to let go of his staff and essentially wipe away every trace of who he is. Again, thanks in large part to Matus’s performance, Georges’s defence of his life choices still resonates. But this staging too often steers into the easy laugh of gay-on-gay viciousness in a way that feels unexamined. 

There’s also the problem that the farce seriously loses its way towards the end of the second half. The sheer momentum binding the sometimes uneasy tone of scenes together slides away. The full-cast drag-up of the closing moments is left with a lot of work to do.

By: Tom Wicker

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