It ought not to work. Beyond its two justifiably famous showstoppers, Jerry Herman’s score is sweet but humdrum. And although the now dated book has dramatic highpoints, underwritten scenes veer between the schematic and the sentimental. Yet two magical things have transformed “La Cage aux Folles.” The first is the smart idea of mounting a show set in a nightclub in the Menier Chocolate Factory, a setting so intimate it genuinely feels like a boite. The second is Douglas Hodge’s sensational performance as Albin.
The farce story of identity politics (before the term was invented) that powered the original French play, its movie and Mike Nichols’ Hollywood remake remains intact.
Drag star Albin threatens to wreck his adopted son’s engagement by being too much of a screaming queen for repressive soon-to-be in-laws. At the 11th hour, Albin triumphs by impersonating the boy’s mother until he blows his cover: cue homophobic outburst before climatic truth-telling and true love.
Director Terry Johnson’s revival abandons the expected Ziegfeld-in-drag spectacle. Instead of using an over-the-top budget to create a glamorous palace, designer David Farley reconfigures the space to create a drag club complete with false proscenium.
The first of 10 rows of seats has audience members sitting at cafe tables on the edge of a stage dominated by faintly shabby, powder-pink ruched curtains. These are brightened during the overture by David Howe’s lighting, pitched somewhere between fuchsia and surprise pink. That combination of luster and faded grandeur sums up the club’s mood. Experiencing the less splashy and more trashy result up-close-and-personal is considerable fun.
Club life is, of course, in the hands — or, rather, the bodies — of “Les Cagelles.” By keeping their enviable muscularity and masculinity on show — even in the case of one who’s actually a woman — costume designer Matthew Wright maintains the emphasis not on female impersonation but on men in drag, including when they’re sporting black plumage that makes them look like demented birds of prey.
After a heavy-handed opening number — not helped by a sound-design that favors the seven-piece band rather than the singer — Lynne Page’s athletic choreography becomes ever more resourceful. Her dancers display eye-widening leg-extensions and, in the title number can-can, execute an eye-watering succession of landings in splits position.
The danger with intimate revivals, however, is that the script is given a scrutiny it cannot withstand. Auds here have to take most of the relationships on trust because the writing is so skimpy.
Philip Quast’s Georges suffers the most. When singing, his lustrous baritone is ideally persuasive but Johnson’s direction leads him to play Albin’s more gentlemanly partner so straight — in every sense — that the character vanishes, leaving him looking strained and stranded.
By contrast, Una Stubbs finds laughs where none previously existed as Mme. Dindon and also lets loose a hilarious trilling soprano.
The show, however, belongs to Hodge. In or out of Richard Mawbey’s superb series of teased wigs, he is a revelation. Playing Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe, as he did, may have been good training for this drag diva with a masters in self-aggrandizement. But that doesn’t account for his captivating, easeful sincerity at exposing the detailed, often painful truth of every situation in which the ageing character finds himself. In his drag persona, he positively glows: Both his character’s and his own pleasure in performance is winningly infectious.
Hodge’s “I Am What I Am” is quietly determined rather than showbiz anthemic. And it’s abiding love for his family, not the spotlight, that so movingly surges through the joyously staged “The Best of Times.” The actor’s conviction turns what can be a nostalgia-fest into a dramatic triumph.
The problem facing anyone wanting to transfer so surprisingly affecting a show is where to take it. In a standard West End house the all-consuming home-made aesthetic will simply look cheap. A non-traditional space should be found, if only to showcase Hodge’s star-making turn.