Writer: Jean Poiret
Translator: Simon Callow
Director: Jez Bond
Before the 1978 French film, its two sequels, the Hollywood remake (The Birdcage) and the Jerry Herman musical, there was a play, written by Jean Poiret in 1973. So here we go back to basics, La Cage aux Folles with “the play “ being emphasised in the title, presumably to kill off any expectations for one of the main characters to burst into I Am What I Am.
Simon Callow’s new translation strips away the excessively sugary coating stuck to Harvey Fierstein’s book for the musical and focuses on the original broad farce. Possibly seen as daring almost 50 years ago, Poiret’s depiction of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and attitudes towards them looks quaint from the perspective of 2020, just as Georges Feydeau’s versions of late 19th/early 20th Century infidelity are now viewed as archaic. However, the works of both French farceurs live on, because they build their comedy around ridiculing pomposity and hypocrisy, which are, of course, timeless.
The play’s title refers to a St Tropez drag club, owned by Georges (Michael Matus) and boasting as its star attraction Zaza, aka Albin (Paul Hunter). Both septuagenarians, they have lived together as a gay couple above the club, for the last 15 years. However, Georges has a 20-year-old son, Laurent (Arthur Hughes), conceived after a drunken night out in Paris, who arrives home with the news that he is about to marry and that the parents of his intended – a right wing politician father and a stuck-up, moralising mother – are planning to drop in for dinner.
Act one establishes the characters and their situations with such precision that the dinner party mayhem that follows in act two feels like something of an anticlimax. Apart from the names of people and places, Callow leaves very little that is distinctively French in his script and director Jez Bond prefers British regional accents to any that might have come from across the Channel. What matters more is that Poiret’s humour translates into a string of very funny lines and Bond’s featherlight, pacy staging comes up with several clever visual gags.
Georges and Albin are roles that give actors automatic licence to go as far over the top as they want. Matus and Hunter take the licence with flamboyant glee. They are the archetypal bickering “married” couple but the absence of a convincing romantic connection between them highlights where the play is so different from the musical. Hughes has a confident air, playing the straight (in every sense) man to several clowns around him and Syrus Lowe as the outrageous Belgian houseboy, Jacob, steals scene after scene, standing out among a strong company.
Beige decor and an art deco staircase are the key features of Tim Shortall’s classy design,
with risqué paintings and a pink velvet chaise longue in the first act being replaced by religious emblems and a dinner table for the second. His garish frocks, large wigs and feather boas add splashes of colour. It can prove a challenge to keep this type of comedy bubbling non-stop and, sure enough, Bond’s production loses some of its fizz in the final quarter, but not enough of it to dampen a very jolly evening of old-fashioned fun.
Runs until 21 March 2020