“The Hamlet of musical theatre”
"I did afterwards take my shoe off and pin him against the wall with my stiletto to his eye. I said ‘if you so much as look at me again…’ and that was all I had to say."
Down the phone on his way to Norwich, “terrible” is the judgement John Partridge applies to the recent reincarnation of Rum Tum Tugger in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
First entering the cast of that musical 30 years ago at the age of 16, John would go on to play Rum Tum Tugger in the original film of the show. The UK tour of Cats which stopped by New Theatre Oxford in September 2016 was host to a new version of the character, a rapper cat with a backwards cap and trashy gold chains.
“Cats is an iconic show, don’t change it!” the performer says. “It’s iconic, award-winning, that’s what you go and see it for. You can reset something but you can’t really change its fabric.” Then he theatrically tells me that the original Rum Tum Tugger is back in place on Broadway, almost booming that “the character has been restored to its former glory…”
He is on route to Norwich as part of the 2016 UK tour of Chicago, for which he portrays Billy Flynn. He finishes this gig in Birmingham on 31st December, and begins a tour of La Cage Aux Folles five days later in Oxford.
‘A Little More Mascara’ from La Cage served as an anthem for his gay, teenaged self, he says, citing the music of the Fierstein and Herman creation as “the soundtrack to my sort of coming out,” saying “sort of ” because he “didn’t really have a coming out story.”
With the original Broadway production winning six Tony Awards, La Cage opened in London in 1986, coinciding with what John remembers as “the explosion of HIV and AIDS into people’s consciousness,” brought on by advertising involving icebergs and the words “don’t die of ignorance,” which to him “overshadowed” the vibrant show’s West End debut.
Taking on the role of drag artiste Albin, in what will be the show’s first ever UK tour, John refers to La Cage as “the Hamlet of musical theatre. I am very nervous; people love the show and hold it in really high regard, as do I. There will be a lot of expectation on my shoulders and it is something I’m taking incredibly seriously.”
I suggest that playing a drag queen is not dissimilar to a role he took on about 15 years ago, that of Marilyn in Boy George’s Taboo, but John believes that part to be “a completely different kettle of fish.
“Marilyn was kind of anti-drag. He didn’t wear boobs, he wasn’t trying to look like a woman, he wasn’t a female impersonator. A lot of his fashion was just makeup and hair and occasionally he put on a dress. Boy George, Maz and all those people from that time were ‘freaks’,” he continues, quoting the term used positively in Taboo to describe the various eccentrics that decorated London’s clubland in the Seventies and Eighties. “It wasn’t really about drag, it was about wearing makeup and experimenting with boundaries – and gender was a part of that.
“You weren’t going to see Marilyn down the Black Cap bouncing to Shirley Bassey on a Saturday night – it’s not what he did.”
Having touched on Taboo my heart rate quickens as I elect to ask John about an incident Boy George wrote of in his autobiography, Straight, concerning John threatening someone backstage with a stiletto. Had I ventured into “I’m not going to talk about it” territory?
But I hear a gleeful laugh from the actor, before he recalls the episode in question. “Before I opened in Taboo I only had about three or four days of rehearsal,” he says, highlighting the fast-paced, learn-quick nature of musical theatre that could help explain why not everything in every show is tip top perfect all the time. “During my only dress rehearsal before my opening night, I went on stage and unbeknownst to me I had my wig on back to front – not a good look, right?
“I went through a whole number like it, and Paul Baker, the guy who played Philip Sallon, was laughing at me, and I wasn’t having it. So, yes, I did afterwards take my shoe off and pin him against the wall with my stiletto to his eye. I said ‘if you so much as look at me again…’ and that was all I had to say.” Indeed, the Culture Club frontman would make clear in his book that Baker didn’t make the same mistake twice. I’m told the actors of Philip and Marilyn actually shared the same management at that time, “We don’t now,” John says with a playful, camp snarl.
La Cage Aux Folles is at New Theatre Oxford from the 5th-7th January. It was in this city that John opened in Chicago back in February; he left the Celebrity Big Brother house and a week later had to go out and sing ‘Razzle Dazzle’, rendering that period “all kind of a blur. I am very much looking forward to coming back and being a lot clearer of mind and body,” he says.
It’s worth noting he is returning with a show he calls “amazingly funny,” laugh at your own risk – you don’t know how deadly his heels could be.
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