La Cage aux Folles review: A gentle push back against repression

This admirable performance is risqué rather than truly risk-taking

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

There's a telling moment of incidental cruelty early in La Cage aux Folles, the iconic 1983 musical adaptation of the 1973 play, which plays like a light joke. It features Hannah, a widely feared, whip-cracking, cross-dressing dominatrix who is instantly subdued by her manager's threat to make her perform at the St Tropez cabaret as a man. (Hannah whimpers away, tail and crop, between her legs.)

In all the bright and brash celebration of the musical, a confection saturated in plush red hues and radiant with the shimmer of self-expression, that undercurrent still has the capacity to sting.

The plot turns, after all, on a similar conspiracy to usher two gay men back into the closet to appease a pair of ultra-conservatives. For all the progress we make in shaking off repressive forces, there is always a threat they will return. That also makes the arrival of this touring production seem more timely, with an emboldened right resurgent across the western world, culture wars looming and identity politics under fire.


Take the cabaret's MC, Georges (Adrian Smed, so uniformly benign he could be in a sedative commercial), spitting objections at his son, saving the worst for last: "Judas! Traitor! Heterosexual!"

In truth, La Cage aux Folles, adapted by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, offered mainstream audiences a hugely reassuring image of alternative family structures. In ways, it was ahead of it time (George and Albin are contentedly married, long before it was legally possible in France, the US or, indeed, Ireland) and yet cautiously of its time: for all the suggestiveness, it allows for little physical affection between the eruptive prima donna Albin (John Partridge) and the permanently exasperated Georges.

This staging, which draws as much from French boulevard comedy, Broadway glamour and British music hall, does something similar, supplying an admirable and well-oiled performance that is risqué rather than truly risk-taking.

Like Partridge's costumes, then, it delivers a spectacle of pleasingly nostalgic dazzle and the bare minimum of room to manoeuvre. The show belongs to Partridge, making his Albin a Mancunian firebrand, with a voice that can smoulder, rumble and belt like Shirley Bassey. He is also appropriately subversive when let off the leash. "I bet you didn't get that in Big," he tells the audience after a gently blue ad-lib. Those audiences are hardly mutually exclusive, though: celebrating individuality, welcoming everybody and brimming with good will, the show exalts the plumage of the queer alternative without ever ruffling any feathers.

Until January 14

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture