Sunday, April 06, 2014


S.O.D.S. at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff

That bijou club in St Tropez is proud to present its 15th production – more feathers, sequins and drag queens than the far right could shake a stick at.
SODS, on another coast, can boast a much longer heritage: La Cage Aux Folles is their 219th production, and their history predates even this charming Edwardian theatre. They're back here after a period in the less atmospheric Cliffs Pavilion, and this ambitious choice is a fine way to welcome back their loyal audience.
It's a huge challenge for any non-professional company. SODS have gone for an equal-opportunities troupe of show-”girls”, four boys and five girls make up the nine Cagelles. It's a high-risk strategy, of course. Will the lads end up looking like Dick Emery against the glamorous young ladies ? Any such doubts are soon dispelled in the routines for the opening “We Are What We Are”, and the troupe are never less than impressive, whether in the statuesque stillness of the Act One finale or the colourful, incredibly athletic, Can-Can.
Lovely character work, too, notably from Suzanne Walters as Mme Dindon and Ian Gilbert milking every moment as the stage-struck butler/bonne Jacob.
The couple at the heart of this touchingly old-fashioned story of love, loyalty, family and sharing are Georges and Albin, twenty years a couple and thrown into disarray by their son, young Jean-Michel, announcing his engagement to the daughter of the bigoted Deputé Dindon [Dick Davies, who gets his own moment in drag at the end].
Declan Wright makes an excellent job of the boy, with his romantic song and dance of the old school; Hannah Dunlop is his delightful young Anne.
SODS stalwart Les Cannon is a wonderful Georges, tired and cynical sometimes, but proud of his club, his partner and his son. His handling of the sentimental songs is faultless; a strong anchor at the centre of this whirlwind world of burlesque and farce.
But most of the weight of expectation here falls on the shoulders of Mark Evans-Leigh, playing Albin, George's other half and, as Zaza, the established star turn at La Cage. Evans-Leigh is too young for the role, making something of a cradle-snatcher of poor Georges, but he does bring a superb sense of style to the showpiece numbers, as well as to the more introspective Mascara and the iconic anthem that ends Act One with him rushing out into the St Tropez street. A compelling characterization, combining boyish charm, innocence, bling and vulnerability.
David Street's polished production uses a large cast – the red-blooded chorus number for “Uncle Al” for example – and gets the most out of his dancing girls. The Dishes number was well sung, but lacked farcical fluency. But I admired the swift scene change to Chez Jacqueline, and the poignant moment after the walk-down when the gorgeous gowns go back in the skip, revealing the actor beneath.
Costumes on show here, I understand, from the original Palladium production, when Dennis Quilley played Georges.

Rachael Plunkett is the musical director, with Stuart Woolner conducting in the pit, and a sound mix [Rob Gulston] of West End quality.

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