Review: La Cage aux Folles [The Play] (Park Theatre)
Simon Callow adapts a new English version of Jean Poiret's classic farce for the stage
Wise move adding those last two words to the title of this production, thereby alerting potential ticket buyers that this is not the fluffy, family-friendly Jerry Herman musical but instead the somewhat raunchier Jean Poiret farce that ran for over 1800 performances in mid-1970s Paris. There's nothing to frighten the horses in this non-musical version, but Simon Callow's zany, occasionally foul-mouthed adaptation does make one realise the extent to which Harvey Fierstein defanged and desexualised the Gallic original when writing the book for the Broadway blockbuster.
The basic premise is the same: long-term partners Georges and Albin are running a St Tropez drag club (where the latter is also the star turn) when son Laurent (the product of a one-night stand between Georges and a woman twenty years previously) wants to bring home his fiancée and her alarmingly right-wing parents. Against their better judgement, the gay couple temporarily jettison their blissfully camp existence and try to pass themselves off as the kind of people the in-laws would approve of. Laurent's biological mother is invited to pose as the family matriarch but when she fails to arrive on time, the guys are forced to improvise.
These outrageous, good-hearted characters have created for themselves – and their equally flamboyant co-workers and hangers-on – a safe haven where anything goes. The dinner service is decorated with patterns of Ancient Greek youths engaging in gay sex and the soup tureen handle is a set of male genitalia, but kindness and consideration still reign supreme. The arrival of the prejudiced, hostile politician Priedieu and his starchy wife into this bacchanalian fun factory throws into sharp relief the gulf between the two lifestyles, and probably felt more shocking when Poiret's play premiered in 1973 than it does now.
It should be as light and tart as a lemon soufflé, but Jez Bond's wildly uneven production only fitfully achieves comic lift-off. This is partly due to some iffy casting, and also an inability to decide whether the actors are playing their roles for real or sending them up.
For farce to work, it should either feel that there is a heck of a lot at stake for the characters involved (look at the frenetic but desperate middle act of Noises Off), or at least that everybody is inhabiting the same onstage world. This production fails on both counts. The pace is frequently sluggish, leaving laugh-free gaps where inconsistencies in plot and characterisation might have been less obvious had the whole show been headier and fleeter. Most of the performers are impressive individually but some are so busy pitching their comedy business directly at the audience that they fail to connect with their onstage castmates. The frequent breaking of the fourth wall doesn't help – what worked a treat on One Man Two Guvnors doesn't really fly here, where having an actor go and sit right next to an audience member in the front row during an argument scene simply feels like a slightly desperate attempt to whip up flagging interest.
There are some delightfully off-the-wall turns however, from Mark Cameron as the local butcher with an improbable working knowledge of fine art, to Louise Bangay as the buttoned-up politician's wife with an unexpected penchant for extreme violence, and Syrus Lowe as the useless but fabulous male maid who can't walk in flats and wears a different headpiece for every appearance. Simon Hepworth is delicious and comes close to stealing act one as the spiteful diva Mercédès, who spends most of his time out of a frock siring children.
Michael Matus's slightly manic, always engaging Georges fares best out of the two leads, convincingly going from suave to sweaty desperation in the blink of an eye. Paul Hunter is a wonderful comic performer but feels miscast as demanding diva and drama queen Albin. More at home with baleful stares than tantrums, this Albin only really convinces when called upon to step into the breach and save his family. Despite these drawbacks, Hunter's creation still seems rooted in an absolute truth in a way that those of his more mannered colleagues do not, and that makes him a joy to watch.
Tim Shortall's sumptuous set undergoes a startling transformation as Georges gives the family home the 'Christian Values' makeover, only to be overrun at the conclusion by a gaggle of sequinned 1920s flappers, some of whom have remarkable amounts of facial stubble. Shortall also designed the Menier's musical revival of La Cage aux Folles in 2008 and was Tony Award-nominated for the set when that production transferred to Broadway.
Ultimately, the novelty of gay characters in classic farce situations has diminished greatly over the decades, and the concept of a happy, healthy gay family unit mercifully seems a lot less exotic now than it did in 1973. As a result, La Cage aux Folles [The Play] works mainly as a curiosity, albeit an intermittently hilarious one. Lovers of the musical will enjoy noting the differences, and seekers of a good belly laugh will find plenty here to chortle about. Just don't go expecting to uncover a lost classic.