Jean Poiret’s French comedy of manners with a drag twist has never been translated into English before. That’s a surprise given its enormous stage success, along with the two films and hit musical it has spawned. Thankfully, director Jez Bond thought the lack a shame – I agree – and has recruited Simon Callow to produce a script that works a treat.
There are bold decisions behind the production, namely, to make the show gloriously old-fashioned. Time and place – the French Riviera in the early 1970s – are enforced; there’s even a reference to the UK joining the EU. As a result, there are plenty of attitudes that seem archaic. The play makes for an interesting history lesson, if you want one, just in case anyone forgets Drag can be political. And you might find the role of Jacob the servant (which Syrus Lowe tackles well) intriguing. If a lot of the gender politics is worlds away from being “woke”, maybe it’s best to just shrug and feel smug that things are better now.
There’s nothing serious about La Cage aux Folles. It only makes sense to judge it as silly and this is good nonsense. The plot is clear while crazy touches build well. The jokes are good, although in truth it’s the performers rather than the lines that get the laughs. No matter, it’s a fun evening and all the more credit to Bond and his cast.
Hunter and Michael Matus play the flamboyant couple, performer and owner of the
titular nightclub, with assurance. Their insults and rows are enjoyable and
both performers make the most of every moment. Arthur Hughes is good as their
son, Laurent, whose future marriage drives the plot: it’s a tricky role that
needs to introduce an amount of restraint to proceedings. There’s also strong
support from Mark Cameron and Simon Hepworth.
fun doesn’t increase quite as much as you might hope. As our heroes meet their
conservative future family, hosting them for a disastrous dinner party, the
second act feels skimpy. Female characters get a raw deal. But Hunter and Matus
keep up the energy with some quick transformations adding fun. Remarkably, the
play manages to escape the shadow of its famous progeny to show itself as a
fine farce in its own right.
Everybody loves Miriam Margolyes. This story of a monstrous cosmetics tycoon, once one of the richest self-made women in the world, provides a larger-than-life role that brings her centre stage. One of our finest comic actresses, it’s a thrill to see Margolyes expertly handle some great jokes.
The briefest research about Helena Rubinstein shows that playwright John Misto’s depiction is motivated by the potential of caricature. So be it, making the character ruthless and miserly gives the perfect palate for Margolyes to work with. She shouts Yiddish insults from her skyscraper to rival Revlon’s, while keeping chicken drumsticks in the office safe. At least she’s kind enough to provide free electricity for those slaving away in her office. A collection of clichés yes, with malapropisms via Poland, but it’s all very funny.
While the comedy foundation is good the rest of the play’s makeup is hastily applied. Attempts at suspense surrounding espionage in the cosmetics business fail to add tension. Helena’s traumatic lifestory and emotional frigidity feel tacked on. A substitute son, in the figure of her gay bodyguard, capably performed by Patrick O’Higgins, gives rise to more good gags before becoming a dead end. Intense rivalry leads to some great scenes with the excellent Francis Barber as Elizabeth Arden (this relationship already the subject of a documentary and a musical) but the two makeup maestros’ could have more time together. Barber seems criminally wasted.
Jez Bond directs efficiently but like the no frills set from Al Turner there’s a lack of imagination that the show really needs an injection of. Listed like this, it all sounds negative. But you’ll be laughing enough to forgive. Nearly all of Turner’s jokes – and there are a lot of them – land. If the play gets as many star ratings as it has laughs its sell out run at the Park will only be the start of things.
London’s newest venue, the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, opened its first show last night. Overseen by artistic director Jez Bond, this former disused office space (converted by David Hughes Architects and partly funded by the sale of residential apartments above the theatre) is an exciting addition to London’s burgeoning theatre scene. Two intimate spaces with pleasant foyers are just a stone’s throw from the Tube station – itself only 20 minutes from Knightsbridge. Bond’s inaugural season, combining new writing and classics produced in-house, and providing a venue for other talented companies, should guarantee it many visits.
The first production doesn’t quite match the ambition of the theatre itself, but These Shining Lives by American playwright Melanie Marnich is a competent piece. The story of women workers who apply the illuminating radium on to watch faces, slowly poisoned by what they thought was their dream job, is finely directed by Loveday Ingram and well acted. On the downside, the writing is a little laboured, speculation about the passage of time heavy handed and the politics a touch naive. Based on a true story, the focus on the friendship between the workers doesn’t have enough emotional force, despite a fine performance from Honeysuckle Weeks as a mouthy Mae-West character who embraces the emancipation provided by her wage packet.
The real power in the play comes from main role, performed by Charity Wakefield, whose character Catherine becomes the test case in court against the company. Wakefield has an appealing stage presence and convinces as an ordinary women whose bravery becomes inspirational. Marnich rejects the current Gatsby-fixated view of the 20s in favour of representing the decade for regular people. Her sweet Charity’s relationship with her husband, played brilliantly by Alec Newman, is a moving romance with clever modern touches that show further deftness on Marnich’s part. In the couple’s scenes, These Shining Lives becomes a beautiful love story that illuminates and moves. A promising start for the new Park Theatre.