La Cage Aux Folles
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until September 16
It’s ageing to admit that I first saw La Cage Aux Folles almost 40 years ago in a big, bold, brassy production at the London Palladium that starred George Hearn as the drag star Albin and Denis Quilley as his partner Georges. The show had been a hit on Broadway, but its two gay protagonists were too much for Margaret Thatcher’s Britain when the AIDS crisis was at its height. It’s a measure of the paranoia that Quilley had felt it necessary to point out in just about every interview he did that it so happened he was resolutely heterosexual. The production closed after barely 300 performances and it lost a ton of money.
Funny how times change. There is now a debate within the acting profession about whether straight actors should play gay parts and Quilley’s protestations suddenly seem peculiarly offensive. Georges – played in Tim Sheader’s revival by Billy Carter – tells one of his drag artistes at one point that if they don’t behave he will compel them to wear a suit and tie. Maybe this time around that will get the trans rights activists up in arms, and maybe the day will yet come when someone will finally come up with a sensible third-person singular that is gender-neutral.
The part of Jean-Michel, Georges’ son from a one-off fling, has also not aged well, and, while Ben Culleton does what he can to invest him with some charm, he comes across as a ghastly little prig. Even though Albin – played by Carl Mullaney – brought him up when his real mother abandoned him, he casually tells him to make himself scarce when his prospective father-in-law – a hard right populist Nigel Farage prototype played by John Owen-Jones – is about to visit.
I see of course the virtue in casting that is not just blind to colour but also regional accents, but it just seemed a little jarring in this production – supposedly set in a nightclub in St Tropez and run by two French men – that just about everyone in the show sounded like they had just stepped out of Coronation Street. I have to say I wasn’t entirely convinced by the chemistry between any of the principals – the father/son relationship, or, more worryingly, the relationship between Albin and Georges.
Still, La Cage Aux Folles seems almost purpose-built for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and it fills the park with its energy and enthusiasm. It is a great musical – hardly surprising with its music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and script by Harvey Fierstein – and its big numbers, such as I Am What I Am and Song on the Sand, are superb and all rendered here with passion and aplomb.
This revival is timely, too, of course – it was ahead of its time in the way it saw the danger of right-wing populism, and it has valuable things to say, too, about gender and identity. What I found most moving, however, was when the whole audience joined in at the end with The Best of Times is Now. The next line is, of course, “As for tomorrow, well, who knows..?”
Brave or foolish is the person who doesn’t, the way things are, feel at least a little apprehensive about the future, and that song, maybe more than any of them, has a special resonance.