La Cage aux Folles, Playhouse Theatre, London <br> Love's Labour's Lost, Rose Theatre, Kingston Upon Thames

A camp musical comedy is a joyous triumph, but, upriver, a Shakespearean romcom fails to impress
Click to follow

It’s the intimacy, for starters. That’s what makes La Cage aux Folles – Herman and Fierstein’s joyously camp musical comedy, which was inspired by the Seventies film – such a fabulous West End transfer.

Directed by Terry Johnson, this show is a triumph for the London fringe’s Menier Chocolate Factory. Denis Lawson plays the dapper Saint Tropez nightclub manager Georges. And Douglas Hodge is his beloved: the flamboyant drag diva Albin, who can’t be squeezed back into the closet when Georges’ anxious son invites his homophobic prospective in-laws round for dinner.

In the past, the Playhouse has been a far from enticing destination: oddly isolated down by the Thames and feeling cramped inside. But this has all changed. Now the elegant Hungerford footbridge leads pedestrians from the South Bank, with a scenic view of Parliament, straight to the theatre’s door. Internally, set designer Tim Shortall has created a snug cabaret atmosphere. He has made the auditorium and the stage meld, with tables and chairs at the front of the stalls and the dress circle’s boxes curvaceously extended to form a minstrels’ gallery. You can glimpse the band’s jazz trumpeter up there, cheekily tooting at Albin.

The chorus line of transvestites is an uncannily androgynous vision: shimmering in sequin-drenched bikinis, impossibly leggy, almost Grand Guignol with caked-on make-up, yet peculiarly beautiful. Lynne Page’s choreography, ranging from balletic hornpipes to athletic handsprings, is snazzy and droll. Lawson reveals his natty panache too, launching into flurries of tap and nimbly balancing on the tip of his chaise longue. He can croon a tune admirably as well.

However, the real charmer is Hodge who is simply wonderful in a spangled frock, and a hilarious and adorable blend of burliness and ineffable sweetness. His softly smiling relationship with the audience is enchanting. His fey mannerisms are comically spot-on: the jaw dropping in shock and freezing there; the hands flying to cover the mouth and the crotch when he is required to act macho and splay his daintily clenched knees.

The second half’s gearshift into more stylised clowning and full-on farce may be momentarily obtrusive, but everyone is soon firing on all cylinders. The set changes, flicking between backstage and on stage, neatly reflect the curious double life of cross-dressing, and Hodge’s switch into serious pain is startlingly powerful. His bruised yet defiant solo number “I Am What I Am” remains a resounding anthem for liberal tolerance and alternative lifestyles.

Unfortunately, it’s a dreary case of déjà vu with Love’s Labour’s Lost. Maybe the Rose Theatre in Kingston hoped it would have the last and longest laugh when Sir Peter Hall’s production was programmed to open there, just 20 days after the RSC’s staging of the same Shakespearean romcom – the one where the Princess of France and her alluring ladies distract the King of Navarre and his gents from their celibate retreat.

As comic timing goes, this double whammy proves misjudged. David Tennant has been charming the Stratford audiences, making the satiric wit turned suitor, Lord Berowne, a highly amusing livewire. He’s a hard act to follow and it doesn’t help that Finbar Lynch – as Berowne Mark II – looks a little like him, only shrunk in the wash. Lynch gives a stiff performance. As a wooer, he’s a toe-curling smoothie. And while Tennant invested Berowne with extra zest by using his native Scots accent, Lynch smothers his Irish lilt with received pronunciation. Often he and his fellow actors are left rigidly standing about in almost straight lines, as if waiting for a firing squad.

This thin schematic play is, in turn, stuffed with archaic puns and elaborate tautologies. Repetition does not make everything funnier, especially when Peter Bowles decides not even to attempt a Spanish accent as the verbally florid Don Adriano de Armado. That said, the verse-speaking is lucid. William Chubb captures all the tics of pedantry as the Latin-spouting schoolmaster Holofernes. Susie Trayling, outstandingly, brings out the wit and potential shrewishness of Berowne’s sweetheart, Rosaline.

‘La Cage aux Folles’ (0870 060 6631) booking to 10 Jan; ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (0871 230 1552) to 15 Nov