Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 9 January, 2008

The Chocolate Factory had doubtless been hoping for a clutch of strong reviews of this staging of Jerry Herman’s musical to boost their business over the holiday season; unfortunately, illness led to the press night being twice postponed. I think that decision was, artistically at least, the right one. The show does not stand or fall solely on the performance of no-longer-poorly Douglas Hodge, but no understudy would have given the same flavour. Drag is an idiosyncratic art, and more so in this comedy in which the ploy is reversed. Here, a flamboyant drag artiste has first to learn to behave like a heterosexual man and then successfully to impersonate a woman (very different from the ambiguity of drag), for the benefit of his “son”’s strait-laced in-laws-to-be.
Hodge at first struck me as too much the mincing, wispily voiced stereotype. But as the evening progressed, I saw greater complexity, just as in the concept of drag itself. There are also moments at which he makes the role his own, such as when, during his “straight” training, he irresistibly fans himself with a slice of toast. Having been underwhelmed by his goofy Nathan Detroit in Guys And Dolls a couple of years ago, I am now happy to revise my opinion of Hodge as a musical comedian.
The show itself – both Herman’s numbers and Harvey Fierstein’s book (from Jean Poiret’s original play) – proves surprisingly affecting, and most so when it is least labouring the point. Neither the drag chorus’s defiant “We Are What We Are” nor even the big, calculatedly sentimental number “The Best Of Times” strike as powerfully as moments when we see the simple truth that these two middle-aged men cannot but be deeply in love with each other. Philip Quast as Georges, the “plain homosexual” partner to Hodge’s Albin, is a perfect complement; it is his grounding that permits and delimits Albin’s diva antics. The poignancy takes care of itself, and director Terry Johnson has a deft eye for the farcical side of things. It is always a joy to see Jason Pennycooke, who regularly steals scenes as the couple’s butler-cum-“maid”. But for me, the biggest surprise of the evening was to see how, when dressed soberly en femme as “Maman”, Hodge strikingly resembled Carol Thatcher.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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