LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 16th September
‘Content Advisory’, reads the trigger warning outside this outdoor theatre in lovely, leafy Regents Park. ‘The production contains loud whip-crack sounds and addresses themes of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny.’
Oh no, not another tedious play about sadomasochism and transgender rights. Why is everyone suddenly so obsessed with this sort of thing? In fact, this musical has been around for 50 years. And, despite its lurid content, it’s actually remarkably conventional.
La Cage aux Folles (literally ‘the cage of crazy women’) started life in 1973 as a comic play by French actor and director Jean Poiret. It was a succès de scandale in France and, in 1978, spawned an entertaining movie that transcended the language barrier to become a transatlantic hit.
In spite of its risqué subject matter, the plot was as old as the hills: nice young Frenchman Jean-Michel wants to marry his wholesome sweetheart, Anne Dindon, but before they can wed, he must arrange a successful rendezvous between his bohemian parents and Anne’s reactionary mum and dad.
So far, so familiar. The twist is that Jean-Michel’s loving parents are two gay men who run a notorious drag club called La Cage Aux Folles (‘folles’ doesn’t just mean mad women – it’s also French slang for homosexual).
Half a century ago, the concept of two homosexual men raising a happy, well-adjusted, heterosexual son was still extremely controversial, and when Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman turned Poiret’s play into a flamboyant Broadway musical, in 1983, social conservatives were aghast. But liberal audiences loved it. Its standout song, I Am What I Am, became a gay anthem, and a cri de coeur for outsiders and eccentrics of every stripe.
More remarkably, it also went down very well with mainstream theatregoers, not only on Broadway but also in London’s West End, and on tour.
Why was it so successful? Partly because Jean-Michel’s parents, Georges and Albin, were such rounded, sympathetic characters but, above all, because, beneath its radical veneer, GARY SMITH La Cage Aux Folles is really a very traditional drama.
A gay old time: Georges (Billy Carter) and Albin (Carl Mullaney)
When Albin drags up to fool Anne’s parents, we’re back in the well-trodden terrain of Charley’s Aunt (written by Brandon Thomas way back in 1892) and countless subsequent crossdressing dramas. ‘Gender fluidity’ may seem new and daring to today’s trans-inclusive youngsters, but dramatists have been playing around with the concept
since Shakespeare. Tim Sheader’s bright and ballsy
production hits all the right notes. The big ensemble numbers are funny and sexy, and the glitzy costumes are wonderfully OTT. Carl Mullaney’s Albin is an alluring blend of virtuosity and vulnerability – so confident in drag, so insecure beneath the make-up. Billy Carter is excellent as his partner, Georges, the club’s owner and compère. Surrounded by larger-than-life performances, he gives a relaxed, naturalistic presentation that holds the whole show together. His dry wit and easy charm reminded me of David Niven.
My only beef is with the setting. Sheader retains Poiret’s original Côte d’Azur locale, but his cast adopt a wide array of accents, which sometimes jars. The Teutonic accents work a treat, the broad Northern English accents somewhat less so. Would it have worked better if Sheader had been bold enough to transfer this French Riviera musical from Saint-Tropez to Blackpool?
No matter. This is a terrific show, with a good deal of substance beneath its gaudy surface.
I feel it’s only fair to sign off with a trigger warning of my own – wrap up well!
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has been going strong since 1932, attracting over 100,000 visitors every summer. I’ve been lots of times and I’ve never
seen a bad show, but my enjoyment has always been closely aligned with the erratic English weather. Last time I came, we got rained off – a rare occurrence, but an occupational hazard all the same.
This time, I hit the jackpot – the weather was warm and dry – but even on a hot day it can get very chilly after dark. I felt rather silly wearing thermal underwear on a midsummer evening, but I’ve never been more comfortable – certainly a lot more comfy than all the tightly corseted men onstage.
Wrapped up nice and warm, with a thermos and waterproofs in my rucksack, the transphobia, homophobia and misogyny didn’t bother me at all.