Mernier Chocolate Factory/Playhouse Theatre (2008)
Summary: Wonderfully exuberant and touching comedy-musical set in the cabaret world of the South of France.
London’s gone cross-dressing mad, well the west-end appears to have. First there was Hairspray, then Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and sandwiched in between these is the Mernier’s revival of La Cage Aux Folles (now moved to the Playhouse Theatre).
Based on a 1970’s French farce film, it was turned into a musical in the 80s and then the film the underwent an US remake as The Birdcage (with Robin Williams). The story revolves around a middle-aged gay couple (Georges and Albin) who run St Tropez’s premier cabaret, and transvestite, club. George undertakes the role of the club’s manager and MC, while Albin puts on the frocks, slaps on the make-up and transforms into Zaza – their headlining act.
George has a son who, now in his early 20s, decides to marry. However, the attention of his affections is the daughter of a right winged politician who, amongst other things, plans to close down the cabaret clubs and bring family values back to St Tropez.
So to keep his son happy, and pave the way for true love, George has to straighten his act up and dispense of the very camp Albin for one night, so the in-laws will bless the proposed nuptials. Of course, being a farce, things are not as easy as they seem and so the scene is set for a comic, and very often, touching story.
The production is wonderfully slick. The dance routines set in the club are outstanding; the men (all dressed as women) sing, dance and do acrobatics with an energy that defies belief. The two leading roles, Georges and Albin, are played to perfection, with Albin touching the right note of camp to be effective, hugely funny and yet not be some sort of stereotype.
If anything, the only character that jars slightly is the son. His arrogance and attitude towards his father and ‘mother’ does make him rather dislikable and if the play could have put a little more time into his character, I think the move to the second act would be more agreeable; but this is a very minor quibble in an otherwise glorious production.
The music is quite lovely. Interestingly for a 2 hour production, there aren’t too many songs, but a number of them are repeated throughout the show. This is not, as it may seem, laziness, but a very effective tool. The songs, such as ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘With Ann on My Arm’, work well in a number of contexts; and this repetition increases the audience’s familiarity with them, making the finale medley all the more enjoyable.
Standout tracks are the infectious ‘The Best of Times’ and ‘I am what I am’, which Albin uses to devastating effect when being told that he is not to be involved in any way in meeting the in-laws.
The great thing about this show is not what it is but what it isn’t. It’s almost crammed full of gay clichés: the camp drag queen, the petulant child, the bigoted father in-law, the bitchy chorus line and many more. But somehow it doesn’t pander to these nor does it descend into stereotypes. Yes, it’s camp, but it’s touching, loving and very funny.
Actually, I couldn’t have put it better than a fellow audience member who, on leaving the theatre, I overheard exclaim, ‘I want to run back and see it again immediately’. The show is an unmitigated joy that will have you running back for a second, third and, quite possibly, many more viewings.