Review: La Cage Aux Folles, Sunderland Empire, until August 5

Adrian Zmed and John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles
Adrian Zmed and John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles

Ooh la la -La Cage Aux Folles is ruffling feathers all this week at the Empire.

Be transported from the drizzle of British summertime to the heat and histrionics of the Côte d’Azur in this fabulously flamboyant musical staging of the French farce of the same name.

The deep reds and gilt of the Edwardian Empire proved the perfect backdrop for the cabaret club setting of this Moulin Rouge meets Priscilla Queen of the Desert musical.

This is the show’s first foray on the road in the UK and it was a tale with which I wasn’t familiar.

In summary, it centres around the relationship of nightclub owner Georges and his partner Albin, aka ZaZa, the dazzling drag artiste star of La Cage Aux Folles.

All is fairly idyllic in their world of sequins, tassels and the odd diva tantrum, until Georges’ son requests they ‘play it straight’ to hoodwink the homophobic politician parents of his bride-to-be and sets feathers flying - a plot line with even more resonance in light of the recent Trump headlines.

John Partridge shimmers as Albin, commanding the stage from his first flounce into the spotlight to his final lavish bow.

He plays the role larger than life, so much so that every flick of his wrist and raise of the eyebrow manages to pack a punch, even when you’re up in the dress circle.

He seems to relish blurring the gender boundaries and promoting the show’s message of sexual tolerance and he certainly makes the role of Albin his own. Never more so than in the score’s standout song, I Am What I Am, which he belts out with utter conviction. (My only slight quibble being that he’s made it so much his own, using an exaggeration of his native accent, that I sometimes struggled to decipher his Lancashire lilt.)

At one point, he breaks the fourth wall for a scene in which the Empire audience becomes the La Cage crowd and displayed a real knack for comic timing with some caustic, catty put downs. Partridge could eat hecklers for breakfast without even batting a false eyelash.

At his side is the more understated Adrian Zmed as his partner of 20 years, Georges. Theirs is not an over-the-top partnership of roses and romance, it’s one based on a deep friendship and understanding, one you’d expect of a couple who’ve spent two decades together, and the pair project a great warmth together on stage.

Set and costume designer Gary McCann also deserves his name in lights for the lavish nightclub staging down to the downright fabulous costumes, which must require whirlwind levels of backstage changing to incorporate all the peacock feathers, glittering gowns and Marlene Dietrich-esque wigs. They, and the impressive all-male dance troupe, made me want to become a La Cage chorus girl, even if I can’t can can for toffee.

This cocktail of powerful performances, sublime costumes and a strong story made this the best show I’ve seen at the Empire in months.

The audience around me seemed to agree with the loudest standing ovation I’ve witnessed in a long time. And rightly so: this production deserves every clap and holler.