La Cage aux Folles review and star rating: ★★★★★
Blimey. I want this all over again, and then again some more! The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s new production of La Cage aux Folles is a blistering hit, two-and-a-half hours of raucous cabaret that conveys the punkish energy of the artform while also feeling utterly polished.
Tim Sheader’s production is prestigious from the get-go, with a seamless introduction that doesn’t pause for breath – literally – for 15 minutes. Gender non-conforming performers in bewilderingly beautiful gowns by Ryan Dawson Laight scurry through the audience to perform a stripped back version of famous song I Am What I Am. They seem truly genderless; vulnerable and gorgeous, with pitch-perfect dance arrangements by Jason Carr and choreography by Stephen Mear.
It sets the tone for a first act stuffed with some of the most unbelievable examples of singing and dancing I’ve seen on stage. At one point six La Cage aux Folles dancers jump and land into the splits at the front of the stage in perfect time with one another, and that’s after double leapfrogging over ensemble members while belting. The audience more than once were on their feet midway through acts, unable to restrain themselves and wait for the encore.
If you haven’t seen The Birdcage, the famous Robin Williams film, then here’s a brief precis: La Cage aux Folles is a French play by Jean Poiret, adapted into English with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. In the stage show, the audience are watching La Cage aux Folles, a live cabaret-variety show, but more often we’re behind the scenes with Albin, an ageing male cabaret performer who we only really see in full make-up as his stage persona, Zaza. Georges, the master of ceremonies, is his life partner, and the duo have a son, Jean-Michael, who is actually Georges’ natural son not Albin’s. When Georges marries Anne, the daughter of a famous far-right foghorn who wouldn’t approve of Albin’s lifestyle, Jean-Michael has to make a difficult decision about who to invite to the wedding.
Carl Mullaney is astounding as Albin; his outro to act one, I Am What I Am, is a particularly potent mix of vulnerability and queer resilience. It brought a tear to my eye
There’s an argument that the character of Jean-Michael feels a little old hat. He is used as a prop to engineer a set up that allows Albin’s character study as a queer elder who has always faced systemic prejudice. Jean-Michael is unkind to his mother figure Alwin; nowadays, his vitriolic words and actions sting, but it’s probably more a criticism of a slightly shonky device than a moral problem with the plot; sometimes 24-year-olds can just be mean.
Its subtleties shout as loudly as the outrageous high energy bits. With You On My Arm is a lushly sentimental ode to ageing lovers, given a playful set up with a roll-on black starry night backdrop, like a prop from a regional pantomime. Only the most confident performers can work with this kind of playfulness and make it feel sharp, and Carl Mullaney is astounding as Zaza; her outro to act one, I Am What I Am, is a particularly potent mix of vulnerability and queer resilience. It brought a tear to my eye. Mullaney is the sort of performer who can draw the eye by doing very little, he just has a natural alchemy with the stage.
The rest of the casting is equally spot-on; especially Billy Carter, who is effervescent as Georges. The ensemble are as vividly sketched: Emma Johnson and Harvey Ebbage in particular shine as members of the oddball Cagelle cabaret set, who mostly get their own bits.
In the second act La Cage aux Folles shifts gear again, with more farce as the wedding progresses. The madcap performances are tuned down, but Sheader is confident enough with the text to find the right tonal balance, keeping each scene as delicious and digestible as the last whether there’s death dropping or not.
It goes out with a bang, of course. I’ve never seen so many colours and attitudes on one stage in one go. We didn’t even mention the chorus lines! This is the hit of the summer – book before the rest of London beats you to La Cage aux Folles, by way of Regent’s Park.
La Cage aux Folles plays at the Regent’s Park Open air Theatre until September 19 and tickets are here