'La Cage aux Folles' review — a heartfelt celebration of love, identity, and resilience

Read our four-star review of La Cage aux Folles now in performances at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to 16th September.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Musicals tend to be about young heterosexual couples falling in love. Young lovers, however, were never Jerry Herman’s thing and his 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles is about the happy, loving, and mature partnership of Albin and Georges, a ‘drag queen and a regular homosexual’ who run a drag club and have raised a child together. First performed in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, it makes for a deeply tender and surprisingly matter-of-fact political statement amidst all the glitz, chiffon, and shapely legs — and much of it is all too resonant today.

Tim Sheader’s exuberant and emotionally truthful production is nominally set in the South of France but feels like a British seaside town (the cast uses their authentic accents). Choreographed by Stephen Mear with lots of flicks, tricks, and gymnastics, the show within a show, where the eccentric acts include a songbird, a sword swallower, and a dominatrix, probably isn’t the slickest spectacle in town. The paint is peeling, the gilding has become tarnished, and the lovely ladies of the chorus get tired, but it’s a found family and a safe space in which they can be themselves and don outlandish costumes (designed by Ryan Dawson Laight) without judgment.

As Georges, the club’s debonair host, Billy Carter is such a sweetheart who wants to make everyone happy and knows how to soothe his beloved Albin’s (Carl Mullaney) diva moments. There can be few numbers more romantic than the heartfelt pride of ‘With You on My Arm,’ and their relationship is exemplified by the small gestures of kisses on the hand and loving glances. Conflict arises in the form of the rather brattish Jean-Michel (Ben Culleton), Georges’s son from an early, experimental fling with a showgirl who then rejected the child, as announces his engagement to Anne (Sophie Pourret). The fact that she's the daughter of a politician from the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party sets the drawing room farce of the second act in motion (the modern art in Colin Richmond’s set design is replaced with garish images of the Virgin Mary). The Cagelles all embody these wholesome qualities in spades but not in quite the same way.

The emotional center of the show revolves around the attempted erasure of Albin, the non-biological parent who has essentially assumed the role of ‘Mum’ but is perceived as a liability. There's a blend of so mumsy and glamourous in Mullaney’s drag persona Zaza, reminiscent of concert-era Barbara Cook. In the second act, Zaza appears in a skirt suit and court shoes, bringing Margaret Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket to mind. The anthemic ‘I Am What I Am,’ performed in a resplendent silver gown, emerges from the deepest hurt, ultimately culminating in a fierce act of defiance.

Sadly, the attitudes embodied by gammonish father-in-law-to-be Edward Dindon (Craig Armstrong covering for John Owen-Jones) don’t feel particularly cartoonish or ‘of their time,’ and it’s all too likely that next year’s U.K. election will be fought on gender and 'culture wars.’ As clichéd as his entry into the chorus line is, it does make one wish that real life could be resolved in musical comedy fashion. This show makes for a delicious late-summer treat that also marks Sheader’s swansong to the venue he’s run for the past 16 years before his departure for the Donmar Warehouse. It won’t be easy to fill such innovative shoes.

La Cage aux Folles is at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre through to 16 September.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: The cast of La Cage aux Folles. (Photo courtesy of production)

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