Viv Hardwick talks to West End and TV star John Partridge about the pleasure and the pain of putting La Cage Aux Folles on tour in the UK

HEARING that La Cage Aux Folles is touring for the first time professionally immediately makes one raise a make-up-encrusted eyebrow. Surely the late, great Danny La Rue took his tribute to the Harvey Fierstein-Jerry Herman 1980s musical out on the road, with Leeds’ City Varieties Theatre definitely recorded as a venue in the 1990s... and a suspicion that the North-East also hosted a visit.

EastEnders star John Partridge, currently hitching up his hemlines in the iconic role of Albin, who doubles as the drag act star Zaza, reckons he knows the answer.

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“I think that Danny did the show with amateur companies and my goddaughter saw me in the show and I was speaking to her mother who said that Danny’s long-time manager and partner Jack Hanson said that Danny should never do the show. After Jack died, Danny did decide to take part in productions,” says Partridge, who feels that the public’s response to La Cage means “it was the right time to do it”.

While La Rue, born Daniel Carroll, didn’t like being linked to the term Gay, Partridge made his name on TV playing proudly Gay Christian Clarke and lifted his status to household name after years of West End stardom in A Chorus Line, Cats, Starlight Express and Chicago.

Was taking on the role of a man asked to hide his homosexuality in La Cage, before a plot twist turns the tables, a difficult choice for Partridge? “I think that our political climate has changed so drastically and when the play was first conceived back in 1979, the idea of what a homosexual life meant was far different to what it is now. People get wrapped up in the song I Am What I Am – it being a show about transvestites and drag – but that isn’t the essence of the show at all.

“This production asks what it is to be a normal family and also asks what does it mean to be a mother? That’s really what the show is about and that’s a universal thing that people up and down the country can relate to. That’s why people respond so well to this story. Many think that La Cage Aux Folles is about homosexuality, but it’s a family drama. For me, within this show, I decided to play Albin as a Northerner because I am from Lancashire. I’m tackling the role with my broad Radcliffe accent,” he jokes.

The serious side of the parental problem – Partridge’s Albin and partner Georges, played by Adrian Zmed, have raised Georges’ son Jean-Michele (Dougie Carter) – struck Partridge when his mother died in May from Alzheimer’s. “So, this show has an extra resonance for me. I used my heritage, those strong female characters... strong leaders like my mother, my sisters and my aunties, to help me create this role. I was wrapped in my mother’s love in the story of a mother’s love at this time when I lost my own, and it’s incredibly poignant and adds extra resonance,” says the performer who admits he struggled with the Salford leg of the tour because it was the first time he’d returned to Lancashire since his mum’s death.

“Needs must I’m afraid. I have a mortgage to pay, like everyone else and I have to go out to work. But I have found it extremely comforting to be surrounded by my heritage because I have used it a lot. I am what I am because of what my mother was. Therefore I’m able to take great comfort in that,” he says.

Partridge also confesses that it’s exhausting becoming the drag artist Zaza each night. “Contrary to public belief, I’m not the type of man who wanders round the house in high heels in full make-up, looking like Barbra Streisand. It is a challenge and it does take me a good two hours to prepare for this role. I have 14 costume and wig changes and Gary McCann has designed our set, which looks beautiful... like a jewellery box. My costumes are incredible, as are all the elements with Richard Mawbey doing the wig and make-up for every production of La Cage Aux Folles since it first opened. I go from male, to female, to male and it’s incredible.

“I’d never worked with Bill Kenwright before and, If I’m honest, I’d only heard horror stories about him before. But he is the most gracious producer that I’ve ever worked for. He has gone above and beyond for this production. This is really a stand-out event in his career and Bill said to me that it’s the best musical he’s produced in 40 years and he’s really pulled out all the stops,” says Partridge.

He feels that Kenwright has allowed him to explore Albin and Zaza in a way that’s not been done previously. “It’s not your typical Albin and Zaza in the sense that I’m a little bit younger than people are normally and I have probably a different aesthetic within that because Bill has allowed me that space. I have been doing this kind of work for 30 years. I was in Cats at 16, and it’s a very, very rare occurrence that we have done more than a hundred performances and all of them, bar none, have got a standing ovation. It’s because of the story and how the audience respond to this show. Out of the 15 West End shows I’ve been involved in and various tours, I have never had that in my career.

“We have taken this show the length of Britain and, without fail, no matter if it’s a wet Wednesday afternoon in Bradford, the audience stand up for this show. It’s a testament to the writing and the songs. I also feel that where we are living, in these terrible times, that people have the ability to lose themselves in something and feel uplifted. That’s what this show does. You generally walk out of the auditorium and feel uplifted by it.

“I, on the other hand, feel completely drained,” he jokes.

  • La Cafe Aux Folles, which also stars TV and musical star Marti Webb, runs August 1 to 5. Box Office: 0844 871 3022 or ATGtickets.com/Sunderland