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Review Round-up: Did Hodge Sparkle in La Cage?

The West End got a hefty dose of pre-panto season drag last week when the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of La Cage Aux Folles transferred to the Playhouse (See 1st Night Photos, 31 Oct 2008), where it\'s currently booking until 10 January 2009.

Based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret and subsequent 1978 French-Italian screen version, La Cage Aux Folles focuses on a gay couple – Georges, the manager of a St Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, his star attraction - and the adventures that ensue when Georges\' son Jean-Michel brings home his fiancée\'s ultra-conservative parents to meet them.

Douglas Hodge reprises his performance as drag queen Albin, newly joined by actor-director Denis Lawson, who returns to the West End stage after a long absence to take over from Philip Quast as Albin’s lover Georges. Other new cast members include Tracie Bennett (Hairspray) as Jacqueline and Paula Wilcox as Mme Renaud / Mme Dindon (See News, 1 Oct 2008).

The transfer received a generally glittering reception from the overnight and weekend critics, with a clutch of five star ratings and a wide array of acclamations, particularly for the “storming” performance of Douglas Hodge and the high-kicking Les Cagelles chorus. Hodge’s new co-star Denis Lawson was also rated highly, even if some found his performance lacking the \"massive dignity\" of Quast. Though there were questions regarding the show’s relevancy in an age of legalised civil partnerships, most were happy to look past the politics and enjoy a night of all-out entertainment, which, in the words of one critic, has “actually improved on its move to the West End”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “Terry Johnson’s marvellous production … 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 … 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 … A great Broadway show has been re-born as a classic musical comedy with real punch and pizzazz.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian – “Transfers are always tricky. But, as with Sunday in the Park With George, this Menier Chocolate Factory musical has actually improved on its move to the West End. Lynne Page\'s choreography has more room to breathe, Terry Johnson\'s production has lost none of its loucheness and Douglas Hodge\'s St Tropez transvestite bestrides the stage like a camp Colossus … the brilliance of Hodge\'s performance lies in the way it combines female impersonation with a send up of showbiz conventions … Denis Lawson may not possess the massive dignity that Philip Quast originally brought to the role of Georges; instead, he offers quicksilver charm and nimble feet … The high point remains a can-can, danced by Les Cagelles, in which the all-male troupe do high kicks, cartwheels and even the splits in a display of energy unrivalled on the West End stage. Jason Pennycooke as an over-the-top French maid and Alicia Davies as the hetero love interest, at one point swapping places in a smoke-filled dream sequence, also make their mark.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “This sentimental, spectacular show combines gay, farcical, transvestite and musical elements, complete with a wonderful chorus of athletic, high-kicking drag queens of no fixed gender and Douglas Hodge’s Albin slipping into flamboyant dresses and becoming a song-bird drag-artist. Yet sex never rears an offensive head. Terry Johnson’s old-fashioned, even reactionary production, which fits far more comfortably into the Playhouse than the little Chocolate Factory, scene of its January opening, reminds us just why La Cage Aux Folles still exerts such a strong appeal for traditional, non-gay audiences … Hodge revels with seductive elan in Albin’s swishing, shimmering drag-act. He evokes Piaf and Dietrich in turn, belting out the musical’s gay anthem, ‘I Am What I Am’, in blazing defiance … But when he tears off wig and dresses to become the real Albin, he turns grotesque. He burlesques the attempts of the ultra feminine, delightfully preposterous Albin to assume a male persona, as if back in the days when sending up queers was what real men did.”
    • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars) – “One of many great things about this show is the number of quick changes. It must be like the Ferrari formula one pits backstage, production grease monkeys descending on the actors with automatic wrenches and high-pressure jacks … Denis Lawson has joined the cast to play Albin\'s long-term boyfriend Georges, manager of the Cage Aux Folles nightclub. Mr Lawson has his hair teased up into a style reminiscent of Paul Raymond in his 50s. The other great star of the show is the chorus line of Les Cagelles - six glamorous blokes of astonishing agility about whom it is impossible to say \'they work their socks off\' because they wear no socks, and, at times, not much else. The fun they plainly have during the performance is irresistible, and unlike some hoofers, they know how to act, too … Jerry Herman\'s witty, melodic, uncomplicated songs are gentle to a middling singer. The setting of a chaotic nightclub also means the actors can always mug their way out of trouble if need be.”
    • Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “The musical, like its two irresistible lead characters, is showing its age. Its portrayal of homosexual devotion and domesticity no longer feels edgy; nor is Herman’s score without its bland moments. But Johnson, aided by Lynne Page’s dazzling choreography, makes a chirpy comedy into a beautiful bird of paradise, glowing with colour, strutting with attitude and all the more affecting for the moulting, mangy patches in its bright plumage … Douglas Hodge’s Albin, aka the diva and star turn Za Za, embodies the transformation from mundanity to fantasy. He first appears, in rubber gloves and floral headscarf, his voice a nasal whine, like a cross between Alan Carr and a Coronation Street matriarch. Yet in full slap and wig he assumes magnificence … angst never lasts long in this musical’s rose-tinted world, and frenetic farce quickly takes over, with Jason Pennycooke delicious as Albin’s mutinous, stage-struck maid and Alicia Davies and Stuart Neal offering unforced sweetness as the young lovers.””

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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