Recognise him? Yes, it’s John Barrowman as Zaza aka Albin in La Cage Aux Folles.
Just got back from a brilliant weekend in London – I just knew I wouldn’t be able to resist JB in La Cage, and I’d already got a ticket to see Lenny Henry in Othello at the Trafalgar Studios, so I decided I’d need cheering up and went straight from one show to the other – a contrast if ever there was one. They’re playing in two very different theatres just minutes away from each other – the Trafalgar is stark and intimate, the Playhouse big and showy, and right on the Embankment just by the Millennium Bridge. It was a beautiful evening and to walk along the river really was a treat.
In fact, I was looking for a bite to eat after Othello when I saw a big crowd snapping away and realised it was JB at the stage door – I got a really good view. He’s so generous with his fans – he must have been there for about 40 minutes, quite impressive when he’d barely two hours to get his mascara back on between shows!
It’s a wonderful show – yeah, silly and dated plot, and at first I wasn’t sure if I could handle anything quite so screamingly camp. JB is a real star turn, works the crowd superbly and had everyone howling with laughter. I was also very impressed by Simon Burke’s fantastic performance as his partner, Georges, who is in fact the lynchpin of the show, providing the structure that allows Albin to emote and generally do the diva stuff.
And then, just before the end of the first half, there’s a punch-to-the-gut moment where the show reveals its emotional heart. Georges and Albin have raised a son between them, and the lad comes home with his fiancee, but there’s a problem – her parents are ultra-conservative and he wants Albin to move out while they come to visit. Unfortunately Georges can’t bring himself to tell his lover the truth, so Albin finds out when he finds the apartment being emptied of his frocks and he’s banished from the life of the boy he’s raised devotedly for 20 years. In true Judy Garland style he goes on with the show, but turns on his chorus, and then on an empty darkened stage, fighting back tears of rage and hurt, he holds both audiences, real and fictional, in an electrifying silence before launching shakily into the anthemic, "I am what I am."
It’s a stunning moment, and from there on the show moves to a whole new level. Every number feels right and, as with all good musical theatre, it’s not an easy journey but the conclusion of it is totally life-affriming. I thought JB was excellent as the man torn between being true to himself and not wanting to hurt the son he loves. He’s much too young and gorgeous for a drag queen past his prime but he really captured the emotional vulnerability. The audience (mostly JB fangirls I’d guess) loved every minute and the last scene shows Georges and Albin celebrating their ongoing love for each other with a kiss – a moment left out of the original 1982 production for fear that half the audience would walk out.
So, out I came onto the Strand on the kind of high only musical theatre at its best can provide – the West End at its most vibrant and beautiful – just like John (although I do stll prefer him without the wig…) Still, he is what he is, and we love him that way.