Review - La Cage aux Folles [The Play] at the Park Theatre
The Park Theatre scored a deserved hit in 2016 with its tender, heartfelt revival of Mart Crowley's still-groundbreaking 1968 play The Boys in the Band, a play that put 1960s New York gay life on stage with zinging dialogue and painful honesty, but also a gnawing sense of anxiety that propelled its characters' 'otherness' that still resonates today (as it powerfully did again when it was given an all-star, proudly all-gay cast Broadway outing in 2018). La Cage Aux Folles, a Parisian stage hit from 1973 when it ran for nearly 1,800 performances, is an altogether tamer proposition, creating a farce set in the Saint-Tropez drag club of the title that is being run by a long-term gay couple, and whose son (from a former heterosexual liaison of Georges, the club's manager) is now about to get married to a woman whose father is an indignant right-wing reactionary politician and whose agenda includes ridding the world of just such clubs.
The stakes are high, but the momentum, alas, isn't in director Jez Bond's broad production, that seems to encourage its actors to aim for a fever-pitch of exaggerated desperation which has the inevitable result of diminishing comic returns. Even though Simon Callow, the prolific actor-turned-adapter of this English-language world premiere version of the play, has done a diligent, discreet job of uncovering the play's many layers, that sensitive touch is entirely sledgehammered by the overplayed production.
Callow's intentions are clear, at least, from a programme note, if not what is actually onstage. As he writes, "We have a great deal to learn from 1973. In some ways it was a more carefree time, certainly a less self-conscious one. Gay men, both in France and in Britain, were still very fixated on campness, on adopting fairly extreme versions of feminine behaviour. Thus was partly liberation into a softer, fluffier, more glamorous self, but it was equally a defiance of straight society, saying to the world, 'You think I'm not a real man, eh? You ain't seen nothing yet. I'm gonna be more womanly than any woman ever was.' It was a political protest, as well as a shriek."
This production, however, emphasis the shrieks. Though there's a tender-hearted Albin desperately trying to break out of the shadows of Paul Hunter's dizzying instead of dazzling turn as the star drag queen (and partner to Georges), there's too much mugging -- and fatally, playing to the audience itself, as the 4th wall is constantly broken between stage and auditorium (Albin even sits among us at one point to become an observer of the action). Michael Matus's Georges is similarly pushed into comic exaggeration in a parade of sitcom-style reaction shots. Less would definitely be more.
That kind of comic restraint is admirably demonstrated by Peter Straker's portrait of the club accountant Tabaro, but its offset by another extreme caricature of the character of the maid Jacob by Syrus Lowe.
As it is, I was left longing instead for the momentum and sense of danger and truth that the 1983 Broadway musical version, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by the recently departed Jerry Herman, provided. Just as I nowadays miss the songs from My Fair Lady whenever I see a production of Shaw's Pygmalion, it is interesting to see the original stage source material of La Cage Aux Folles, but I miss the melodies and instant uplift they provided. And some of the jokes in the lyrics there were far better, too: "We import the drinks that you buy/ so your Perrier is Canada dry", is a brilliant throwaway line in the musical that nothing here can match.
Photo credit: Mark Douet
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