John Partridge bares all – quite literally – in his dazzling role as drag artist Albin and his alter ego Zaza.
To set off the flamboyant, and often skimpy costumes in this first ever UK tour of the Tony and Olivier award-winning La Cage Aux Folles, he’s had to become a master of hair removal.
But it’s a price he says he’s more than willing to pay to appear in this colourful interpretation of the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret.
“I have 14 wig and outfit changes in the first half alone,” he explained.
“I go from this mad can can outfit to peacock feathers to Marlene Dietrich. It looks spectacular and so it should. People have paid their hard-earned money to come here.
“We’re all watching the pennies at the moment, so for people to make that investment of their time and money it should be worth it.”
John, whose theatre credits include the West End productions of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium, Cats, Starlight Express and Chicago, is now a dab hand at waxing after the tour began back in January and he says it’s a show that’s been getting the crowds on their feet up and down the country.
“We’re onto our 122nd performance now and, bar none, we’ve had standing ovations every night,” he said. “People really respond to the story of the show, whether they’re in Bradford or Birmingham.
“People get it, whether they’re young, old, gay, straight, black or white – it’s universal.
“People think the story is about drag and sexuality and outrageousness, but it’s actually about a mother and her son, it’s about family, and asks a lot of questions about what it is to be a mother. It’s that story that people stand up at the end for.
“In all the shows I’ve been in over the years, I’ve never been in one that’s got this reaction. It’s like no other I’ve been a part of.”
John, who lost his mum Bridget just weeks ago, added: “I lost my own mum a few weeks ago and there’s so much of my mum wrapped up in this role. I’m with the show in Manchester now, my home town, and I speak with my own birth accent in the show.
“It’s been a comfort to me at this time, being wrapped up in the love of my fictional mum.”
La Cage Aux Folles follows the story of Georges, played by Adrian Zmed, the manager of a Saint Tropez nightclub, and his partner, Albin, a drag artiste and the club’s star attraction.
They live an idyllic existence in the south of France, but behind the curtains of this sparkling extravaganza, all may be about to change when Georges’ son Jean-Michel announces his engagement to the daughter of a notorious right-wing politician, determined to close down the local colourful night-life.
The score includes The Best of Times, Song on the Sand and the iconic I Am What I Am, which has been recorded by musical legends Gloria Gaynor, Shirley Bassey and Tony Bennett.
It will be a return to the Empire for John who was last on stage in Chicago last year. “I was actually at the Empire when I had all my fittings for Cage Aux Folles and I made a video of I Am What I Am for Twitter, so it has lots of fun memories and I’m looking forward to coming back, “ he recalls.
John may have made his name playing Christian in hit TV soap Eastenders, but he says he’s relishing going back to his roots and treading the boards.
“As an actor you want to feel as though you’re learning and growing, whether that be on TV, in reality TV, or on stage. Also, as a jobbing actor I go where the pay cheque is, I have bills to pay, But I do love that instant reaction of theatre. In theatre you know straight away whether the audience like it or not, they’ll tell you. But in TV it may be months and months before you find out what people think. I like the instant gratification.”
But the actor says teetering around in heels can take its toll and he’s looking forward to taking a break from the stage.
“I’ve been touring in shows for two years altogether now and it is tiring,” he said. “I finish this tour in August then I’m going to put my heels in a little box and spend some time at home as I’ve hardly been there since we moved in.
“And I can’t wait to let my hair grow back. I have to wax all over for this role, and I mean everywhere, as some of the costumes leave little to the imagination. So I can’t wait to have my 70s chest hair back.”
•La Cage Aux Folles is at Sunderland Empire from August 1 to 5. Tickets available in person from the Box Office, from 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland