Younger than most previous Albin’s and beefier too, John Partridge gives a thrillingly new take on this much-loved character in the first ever UK touring production of La Cage Aux Folles. His isn’t the usual over-the-hill drag queen wrapped in glitz and melancholy but a defiant glamazon who sings ‘I Am What I Am’ with the conviction of someone who flat our refuses to be anything but his/her authentic self.
Albin tries to conform. A musical comedy classic brilliantly adapted by Harvey Fierstein in 1983 from the French play and film of the previous decade with a superlative score by Jerry (‘Hello, Dolly!’) Herman, the plot finds him enjoying star status in a St Tropez drag club where his all-but-legal husband Georges is master of ceremonies. Their happiness is disrupted, though, when Georges’ son declares his engagement to the daughter of a moralist politician and asks the couple to clean up their apartment and their act. Cue lots of hilarity as Albin tries and fails to butch-up and a dinner party for the two families descends into high farce.
Interspersed with the escalating hilarity are spectacular numbers by the club’s La Cagelles dragsters and Albin’s act as alter ego Zaza, while Partridge’s ad-libbed audience take-downs are caustic and clever he could easily secure a slot at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern once the tour is over. He uses his physicality brilliantly, playing Albin (with a Northern accent that somehow makes him even funnier) as towering and catty and fabulous and completely different to Douglas Hodge, who was equally wonderful in the 2008 revival but went for vulnerability over defiance.
This touring production doesn’t skimp on sets or costumes or orchestrations of those magnificent Herman tunes and the supporting cast are all terrific – particularly Adrian Zmed is an adorable Georges, singing ‘Look Over There’ with such poignancy there’s not a dry eye in the house, and Marti Webb as restaurateur Jacqueline, who gets to belt out ‘The Best Of Times Is Now’.
The power and the message of La Cage Aux Folles are as strong now as they ever were and it’s cheering to see a show that ends with two men walking off into the sunset bring audiences to their feet. The beauty of that final image lies in the fact they are who they are and, with Partridge giving the performance of his career, the best of times to see this magnificent musical really is now.
La Cage Aux Folles is touring the UK until August 26th. For more information and tickets visit kenwright.com
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Words by Simon Button