“Did you miss me?” John Barrowman shouts out as he makes his grand entrance during one of the big production numbers in La Cage aux Folles. “Yes!” is the resounding answer from the audience – a sentiment echoed, no doubt, by most musical lovers, myself included.

It’s been more than five years since Barrowman was last on the West End musical stage in Anything Goes. His performance as Billy Crocker in that Cole Porter classic won him a Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actor in a Musical, and in truth, he was better cast as dashing young American Billy than he is here as ageing French drag queen Zaza.

Though he looks far better in a dress than any of his predecessors in Terry Johnson’s wonderful Menier Chocolate Factory production, with a physique that matches those of the brilliantly limber and athletic Cagelles muscle for rippling muscle, this creates a problem: there’s simply nothing fading about Barrowman’s glory. When he sings about being an ugly duckling in “A Little More Mascara”, it’s hard to credit.

Furthermore – and somewhat ironically given how open he is about his own homosexuality – Barrowman is also the least camp Albin/Zaza I’ve seen. The notion that he struggles and fails to act masculine is ludicrous; this man can’t help but ooze masculinity from every pore. His Albin is simply too strong to be vulnerable – which robs the story of much of its poignancy, and makes his rendition of the anthem “I Am What I Am” an incredibly rousing declaration of self-esteem rather than self-preservation.

On the very big plus side, Barrowman confidence fuels an outrageously fun and raunchy performance (you’ll certainly look at croissants rather differently for awhile), and his immense vocal power adds booster rockets to the already scarily high-energy numbers “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times”.

Amongst the other newcomers to the company, Simon Burke is a handsome and suave Georges, making the most of the nostalgic “Song on the Sand”, Syrus Lowe funks it up amusingly as the butler-cum-maid Jacob and Gabriel Vick is sweet, if slightly too old, as the couple’s lovestruck son.

- Terri Paddock

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from May 2009 and an earlier cast change for this production.

A polite veil seems to have been drawn over Graham Norton’s performance as Albin in Terry Johnson’s terrific production - following Douglas Hodge in the role was always going to be difficult, and critics were not invited to comment - but the gloves are off again for Roger Allam.

It’s easy to see why. His performance is outstandingly good and sufficiently different from Hodge’s to merit a third visit to the revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s great 1983 musical that opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory at the end of 2007.

Allam is older, slightly more absurd, less interested in exploring the various feminine traits in Albin’s character than was Hodge, but just as brilliant at standing up for himself and claiming his dignity as a surrogate father and house frau.

And paired with Philip Quast, returning to the role of Georges, Albin’s life partner and nightclub owner, played for a time opposite Hodge by the lighter, fleeter Denis Lawson, he makes up a double act of sweet old darlings whose combined physical tonnage and baritonal lung power form a heavyweight threat to whimsical musical comedy lovers everywhere.

The sight of Allam looming largely in his housecoat, turban and fluffy slippers defending his right to hang around for dinner - “I deboned a chicken” - is unforgettable. And his cabaret persona “Zaza” is less Marlene Dietrich meets Dusty Springfield (as it was with Hodge), more garish Barbara Cartland dwindling sideways into clunky Pam Ayres. His glamour is not so much faded as totally submerged.

Allam has given two other great performances in the musical theatre - in the original cast of Les Miserables and in the London premiere of City of Angels - and this one is right up there with them. His big first act closer, “I Am What I Am” isn’t an overblown hissy fit but a quieter, more earth-shifting realisation of personal dignity than he can express in social situations. It’s anger that drives him off the stage and into the street, not flouncing queeniness .

Quast ain’t queeny, either, matching Allam in the beautiful, full-chested, resonating renditions of \"Song in the Sand\" and \"Look Over There\". Johnson’s production is in fine fettle, and the male sextet of Cagelles are still simply stunning in Lynne Page’s brilliant, eye-watering choreography (those trim, firm buttocks, those somersaults, those splits, those ghostly white legs cycling upside down!).

Other constant cast members include feisty Tracie Bennett as the restaurateur, hilarious Jason Pennycooke as the little French houseboy and Stuart Neal and Alicia Davies as the young lovers, with Abigail McKern chipping in nicely as the politician’s wife and Duncan Smith filling in competently for Iain Mitchell as the hypocritical scourge of the Riviera on Press night. And Jason Carr’s orchestrations for a small band are a masterpiece in themselves: witty, inventive, and poignant.

- Michael Coveney

** DON\'T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to LA CAGE AUX FOLLES on 9 June 2009 – inc EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with Allam & Quast, FREE programme & FREE drink! – all for £37.50!!! - click here for details!! **

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from October 2008 when this production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre.

The opening of this gorgeous, deliberately low rent revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory was delayed at the end of last year when Douglas Hodge – who gives a knock-out, irresistible performance as the drag artiste Albin – was struck down with pneumonia.

Now fighting fit – he’s been swimming and cycling with the dedication of an Olympic athlete – he resumes the role in Terry Johnson’s marvellous production, which has retained all the intimacy and pinkness of the San Tropez nightclub while stepping up a gear to fill the slightly reconfigured stage and stalls of the Playhouse on the Embankment.

Hodge is joined by Denis Lawson (succeeding Philip Quast) as his life-partner and club owner Georges. Lawson – sprightly in a crushed mauve jacket and grey bouffant hairstyle - brings more edge and propulsion to the character, reawakening his own glorious musical theatre past in Pal Joey and Mr Cinders.

Also new to the cast are Stuart Neal, bouncy and likeable as the couple’s “son” who surprises them with news that he’s going to marry the daughter (Alicia Davies) of a puritan politician (Iain Mitchell); and Tracie Bennett as the bitchy restaurateur and Paula Wilcox as the boy’s putative mother-in-law, joining in “The Best of Times” with a vengeance.

Before, we entered the backstage of the “Folles” through a pink tunnel, as though the acting area was a dressing room. Those elements have been refined on a new thrust stage that also allows the opening club scene to explode like a tribute to Anything Goes, with huge beach balls bouncing round the theatre, before revealing a sulky Albin in housecoat and fluffy slippers. Hodge builds his performance to a storming exit – right out onto the street – in “I Am What I Am”, finding endless variation and comedy in his ability to be affronted.

The six fully body-waxed male “Cagelles” (no smuggled-in real live doll this time, alas) execute Lynn Page’s stunning choreography with terrifying physicality. Jason Pennycooke repeats his high octane turn as Jacob the little French “maid,” while the beauty and poignancy of the performances carries right through to the simple, scaled-down orchestrations of Jason Carr. A great Broadway show has been re-born as a classic musical comedy with real punch and pizzazz.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from January 2008 and this production\'s original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

You enter the theatre through a red velvet corridor and face a curtain of pink ruched silk. The seven-piece band is perched on high, either side of the stage. There is a glitter ball and a smoky atmosphere. One really could be sitting in one of those St Tropez transvestite night clubs that is the setting of La Cage aux Folles, the first gay Broadway musical – music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein – now revived in the absolutely spot-on intimate setting of the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Terry Johnson’s production has been bedevilled by illness suffered first by Douglas Hodge, who plays the star drag queen Albin, then by several other cast members. Press night, initially set before Christmas, has arrived at last. Was it worth the wait? You betcha. Not only has the 1983 show – seen in the West End in 1986 starring George Hearn as Albin and Denis Quilley as his partner Georges, the club-owner – found new life on a more compressed scale; it boasts a really extraordinary central performance.

Hodge’s Albin is a backstage diva whose already precarious sense of self-esteem is further threatened when George (Philip Quast) declares that “their” son Jean-Michel (Neil McDermott) is about to marry a girl (Alicia Davies) whose father is moral guardian of the Riviera; George wants to invite Jean-Michel’s blood mother to the apartment and consign Albin to off-stage anonymity.

The show recounts, of course, how Albin turns the conditions of conduct on their head and wins over the girl’s parents with a little moral pressure. While the original delightful French film of 1978 (remade less successfully by Robin Williams in 1996 as The Birdcage) was an acidic farce with filigree detail and social precision, the musical lingers on the sentimentality of same-sex relationships and celebrates the raucousness of the out-gay life.

What Hodge offers is a dazzling journey through the joys and pitfalls of his status in society. Un-wigged in his dressing room, he can resemble the sad clown Pagliacci, or Judi Dench in the last act of Amy’s View; in full show regalia, he’s the Dusty Springfield of the night clubs; in the cafe scene, where he’s encouraged to “walk like a man” (or, at least, John Wayne), he assumes the black-garbed menacing exterior of Harold Pinter.

Beside him, Philip Quast’s Georges is a rock-like presence with a tender baritonal voice. Herman’s show tunes are as rousing as ever, but you notice more now the ingenious dramatic extensions to items like “With Anne on My Arm” and the “Cocktail Counterpoint”. “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times” remain irresistible knockout anthems, and the score has been brilliantly re-orchestrated by Jason Carr.

Lynne Page’s choreography, David Farley’s set design, and Matthew Wright’s costumes are all superb. A strong supporting cast includes Tara Hugo as a bitchy restaurateur and Una Stubbs and Iain Mitchell as the fiancee’s bemused then thoroughly absorbed parents. “Les Cagelles” are all brilliant and you can have fun spotting the one real girl (Kay Murphy) in their number, especially during the legs-in-the-air sequence.

- Michael Coveney