With its strong appeal to a specific section of the market, it's easy to see why La Cage aux Folles was such a hit in 1983. There's a middle-aged former beauty, hating what the mirror shows but forcing herself to face life and "put a little more mascara on". There's a preoccupied man, sometimes neglecting his wife, but responding to her tantrums with understanding and reassurance. There's even a hymn to mother love, sung by the father, later reprised by the son: "Someone puts himself last/So that you can come first."
Yes, "himself" is the right word, for the "mother" and "wife" is Albin, a drag artiste at the St Tropez nightclub run by Georges, his lover of 20 years. The two have raised a son, the result of Georges' one night of curiosity, who wants to marry the daughter of a right-wing politician. Albin is asked to disappear while the politician visits – but will he? This is not a plot but a situation, and an idiotic one, not greatly improved by Harvey Fierstein's mediocre, dated book and Jerry Herman's bouncy-schmaltzy songs.
Yet all objections vanish in the face of Terry Johnson's effervescent production. Transforming the Menier into a rose-coloured nightclub, he has assembled a crack cast, including a troupe of pouting, shrieking imitation girls who leap on to the ringside tables. Though he overdoes the hysteria at first, Douglas Hodge becomes a genuinely touching Albin, making that pub-singalong standard "The Best of Times" an affecting plea for tenderness. Una Stubbs as the politician's wife and Tara Hugo as a nightclub proprietress are the personification of, respectively, mature sweetness and mature cosmopolitan charm. And when Jason Pennycooke's French maid, a ruffle-clad, wriggling bundle of camp comes on, you can practically smell the Narcisse Noir.
Best of all is Philip Quast, who, in a moustache and wig that makes him look like Don Ameche's father, is a purring benevolent Georges, gliding along with movements that are just a little too precise – he literally as well as figuratively never wants to put a foot wrong. More restrained emotionally than Albin, he manages to convey feelings at least as powerful in "Song on the Sand", a reflection on long-lived, constant love. When one considers how many gay men provided the musical accompaniment to heterosexual romance, this gentle ballad strikes one as a coming-out that was a long time coming.
Based on the lives of Craig Murray and his Uzbek partner Nadira Alieva, The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer contains material so appalling (the systematic torture in Uzbekistan that Murray was sacked in 2004 for revealing, Nadira's childhood as a drug mule for an addicted father) that one shrinks, at first, from criticism. Yet this one-woman show (performed by Nadira, written by the two principals and Alan Hescott, directed by Thomas Hescott) is so awkward and coy, its tone so kittenish, that the facts seem creepy rather than powerful.
In black veils and a silver bikini, Nadira tells us how she defended her virtue, but wants us to admire her breasts: indignant that one newspaper called her "a stick insect", she cups them and asks, "With these? I don't think so!" While Nadira has had to seduce to survive, directed at an audience this habit is embarrassing as well as monotonous – every story shows her as adorable or vulnerable.
Nadira cannot, however, hide her anger at the failings of men from whom she expects support. Shaking her assets in an Uzbek nightclub to feed her family, she expresses contempt for "meat" (customers). In London with Murray, who is broke, she dances naked until he shows up and flings borrowed money at her. She speaks sympathetically about Murray and her father, but when she impersonates the vicious harridan who runs the club, it's a different story. Protected by the veil of another identity, Nadira sounds, for once, as if she isn't putting on an act.
'La Cage aux Folles' (020-7907 7060) to 8 March; 'The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer' (020-7503 1646) to 2 FebruaryReuse content