Review: La Cage Aux Folles at the Orchard Theatre

There are some shows that just make you feel good about life. La Cage Aux Folles is one such show. Setting the stage for more recent hits like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Kinky Boots, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning musical is a feel-good extravaganza that looks stunning, sounds fabulous and features a sensational starring performance from John Partridge.

Based in St Tropez, La Cage Aux Folles is the story of nightclub owner Georges (Adrian Zmed) and his partner Albin (John Partridge), the popular star of the club’s drag act. But then Georges’ son Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter) announces his engagement to the daughter of an infamous right wing politician, and hilarious chaos ensues as the couple attempt to tone down their flamboyant lifestyle and “act normal”.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Act 1 in director Martin Connor’s production acts largely as an opportunity to set the scene and show off Albin’s jaw-dropping array of glittering gowns; “it’s like Black Friday at Primark back there,” he confides after yet another lightning-fast costume change. Perhaps inevitably given this frenetic backstage activity, parts of the first act – particularly during the title number – start to feel a bit like they’re only there to fill time while we wait for the next big reveal. Having said that, it does give us plenty of time to admire Gary McCann’s drop dead gorgeous set, and features one of the highlights of the evening as the distraught Albin, having learned he’s to be excluded from the meeting with Jean-Michele’s new in-laws, brings the house and curtain down with a heart-felt performance of I Am What I Am.

This, by the way, was the only song I knew from the show beforehand, but it turns out to be part of a fabulous, catchy score that’s hard to get out of your head, even 24 hours later. Song on the Sand, With You on My Arm and The Best of Times are just a few of the tunes that get the feet tapping and simultaneously pull on the heart-strings.

After the interval, there’s more action and fewer costume changes, so the comedy can begin in earnest as we head towards a somewhat predictable but still heart-warming conclusion; I’m not ashamed to admit I welled up at one point, and spontaneously cheered at another. As light-hearted as the show is, it still has an important message about accepting others and ourselves, and Dindon the homophobic politician (Paul F. Monaghan) unfortunately feels just as real in 2017 as he was when the musical was written in the 1980s.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

As Albin, John Partridge is exquisite – and not just in appearance, though he does look amazing in every outfit he puts on. Vocally, emotionally, comically, he pitches his performance exactly right, and his relationship with Adrian Zmed as Georges is both believable and touching. But while, much like his character, Partridge is undoubtedly the star of the show, the rest of the cast are by no means in his shadow. Zmed is easily likeable and a natural comedian, Marti Webb (literally) steals the limelight during her all too rare appearances as restaurant owner Jacqueline, and Samson Ajewole is particularly fun as the sassy maid/butler Jacob.

La Cage Aux Folles may not be one of the best known musicals for British audiences, but that deserves to change. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart, this dazzling production of a hugely entertaining and uplifting show is well worth a visit. If it doesn’t brighten your day, then I really don’t know what will.

La Cage Aux Folles is at the Orchard Theatre until 13th May.

Review: Chicago at the Orchard Theatre

Yesterday evening, as my train ground to a halt somewhere outside Lewisham, I sent a little prayer to the train gods (a.k.a. Southeastern) to please sort it out and get me to the theatre on time. Quite apart from the fact that I hate being late for anything – especially the theatre – I was on my way to see Chicago, and I think most people would agree that if you miss the opening number of Chicago, you’ve missed one of the best bits.

Chicago on Tour

Fortunately, the train gods were in a good mood for a change, so I made it to the Orchard in time to sit back, relax and enjoy Kander and Ebb’s classic musical about “murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery… all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts”. Set in the 1920s, Chicago is a darkly satirical story based on a play by Maurine Watkins (which in turn was inspired by real events). Wannabe star Roxie Hart murders her lover and ends up in prison alongside singer Velma Kelly, accused of killing her husband and sister. But when they both hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn, the women soon realise that innocence and guilt mean very little in the courts of Chicago, and that it’s the media, not the jury, that they need to win over.

With a minimalist set – the only props are a few chairs and a couple of ladders – and no need for any significant costume changes, all our attention is focused on the cast and their performances, and they don’t disappoint. This particular revival, the latest of many, features a star turn from Hayley Tamaddon as Roxie, while Sophie Carmen-Jones – who doesn’t get her name on the posters, but really should – razzle dazzles as queen bee Velma. Sam Bailey also stands out as Mama Morton; she’s a convincing figure of authority, but with a note of genuine affection for the women in her charge – and . And John Partridge is all charm and fancy footwork as Billy Flynn – though his vocals are noticeably less strong than those of his co-stars, this didn’t seem to dent the audience’s enthusiasm at the end of each number.

This could be because what makes Chicago such a fantastic show is the music – provided by Ben Atkinson’s enthusiastic orchestra, who are on stage throughout – and the Fosse-inspired choreography from Anne Reinking. These are the kinds of spectacular numbers that would glaringly expose any mistakes, but the cast don’t put a foot wrong; they’re perfectly in sync and working as one throughout – never more so than in the Press Conference Rag, which, along with All That Jazz, is one of the highlights of the show. That said, I really can’t pick a favourite song; they’re all so infectious and it’s no wonder the entire cast look like they’re having the time of their lives.

There’s a reason Chicago’s been a hit with audiences since its premiere in 1975: it’s slick, sexy (did I mention the ridiculously attractive cast?) and oh so stylish, with a satirical humour that makes for some great one-liners, but also makes a serious – and still relevant – point about the damaging and seemingly limitless power of the media to influence public opinion. Add to that the timeless score and slick choreography, and I’ve no doubt this show will be entertaining us for many years to come.

Chicago is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 5th March.