ICON of musical theatre Marti Webb appears in La Cage Aux Folles, a multi award-winning show based on a French nightclub of the same name. Georges runs the club with his partner, drag artist Albin, and the pair live an idyllic existence – until everything changes. Before its first ever UK tour comes to Brighton, EDWIN GILSON spoke to Webb about the musical, working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and how theatre helped her through cancer surgery.

There is a big clash of ideologies in the musical when Georges’ son Jean-Michel gets engaged to the daughter of a right-wing politician determined to close down nightclubs. Does humour derive from this situation?

It’s like a farce. The show is very fast and very funny with a wonderful script by Harvey Fierstein. How can it fail with all of that? The only thing I think that stands against it is the title. People go, ‘What’s La Cage Aux Folles?’ and struggle to pronounce it. If it was called The Birdcage: The Musical we’d be better off because there’d be more recognition with the film with Robin Williams [the 1996 movie].

Is comedy the best reaction against the kind of discrimination shown by the politician? Did the writers use humour as a means of defiance?

Well, it’s about love that wins through against this narrow-minded person. In the end, of course, we win him over. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I don’t know about imposing that on other people. We are what we are; that’s the message of one of the songs and the whole show. You should never be ashamed or upset about who you are.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington said no piece of theatre has done more to “encourage sexual tolerance”. Can a theatre phenomenon like this change public opinion?

You’ve got to remember it started back in the 1980s and life was different back then. It was very brave to do it. There’s a completely different level of tolerance now, but ultimately the show is all about love and getting on with people. It doesn’t matter what your sexual or religious preference is.

I wonder if you thought the musical has taken on even more relevance after the Club Pulse tragedy in Florida last year, given that the show is set around a club?

I really don’t know much about all that. I’m not the person to ask. That’s not my bag, sorry.

You play restaurant owner Jacqueline. What kind of a relationship does she have with the nightclub owners?

She’s their best friend. I send people from my restaurant to their club and vice versa. Jacqueline’s restaurant is the best in the world, according to her. She has this great friendship with Georges and Albin and in the end she saves the day.

You performed in your first major show in Manchester at the age of 15. Can you remember what you felt before that first night?

I’d been working since I was 12, doing television and modelling. That was my first show and, yes, as you’d expect there was a bit of nerves with the excitement.

Had you wanted to act ever since you could remember?

No. I always loved dancing and singing and I got the change to go to stage school when I was 12 which was really lucky for me. My life changed and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. It’s given me a real passion in my life.

A lot of people know you from Tell Me on a Sunday, the one-woman show with music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. What was he like to work with?

What he doesn’t know about theatre isn’t worth saying. He’s very collaborative and I was happy to get the chance to work with him. It was quite unique to play a role which has been created for you, rather than auditioning for a part.

To have something written while you’re sitting there is quite extraordinary, especially when it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting at the piano. That was the most amazing experience of my life I think.

Is it daunting to act in a one-woman show or can it be liberating, too?

I was doing Evita before doing Tell Me on a Sunday and I was very glad to be back in a theatre surrounded by people again after the experience of being on my own. Although I never felt on my own because I had the writers and the musicians around me. You never really do a show alone even if it’s just you on stage starting out into the audience.

What advice would you give actors starting out now?

It’s not easy, it’s never easy. It’s hard and you get a lot of rejection. That might not be because you don’t have the talent, it might be because you’re too short, small or you don’t have the right hair colour. It can be hard to cope with that. It’s not all wonderful and fantastic; it’s a hard graft out there.

How did you cope with rejection?

Well, you just keep going back to other auditions, hoping someone’s going to call you back. You have to take the bad times as well as the good.

You were back on stage just months after undergoing surgery for cancer over a decade ago. Did the idea of returning to stage motivate you to get you through it?

It did, because I thought, ‘this is what I do’. I thought I’d get myself up and get going. People were wonderful to me and I was thankful that everyone was so supportive in the hospital. When I went back to work I actually did a pantomime, which was hard work to begin with.

I remember doing a tap dance because I was determined to do something that was physical rather than just standing there. It was great because I bounced back quicker than if I’d sat around a felt sorry for myself. That wasn’t going to make anything better. It’s a great motivation to have and I was lucky to have that job to get myself back in the swing of it.

What are your memories of Brighton?

The first time I went to the Theatre Royal was with Evita. What can you say about Brighton? It’s a wonderful place. I’ve got lots of friends there so they’ll all come to see the show. Let’s hope the weather is nice.

La Cage Aux Folles
Theatre Royal Brighton, 
August 15 to 26, 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday), call 08448 717650