JOHN Partridge is having the time of his life in La Cage Aux Folles, but there is a poignancy to his performance.

"This show asks what it means to be a mother, and that makes me emotional," says the actor, who plays Albin, a man forced to cover up his role as a parent.

"I lost my mum five weeks ago. There is so much of her wrapped up in Albin," says John, the first actor to play Albin with a northern accent. "Im from Manchester and it seemed natural to play him in my mother tongue. In Albin I see the strong northern females I grew up with - like my mum and my sisters. I can hear my mum saying the lines, scrubbing the bottom of a pan, blowing on her top lip. I feel like I'm paying tribute to her with this role."

Based on Jean Poiret's 1973 French farce, La Cage Aux Folles is centred on Georges, a St Tropez nightclub manager, and his partner Albin, the club's dazzling drag act, Zara. The couple's idyllic life is threatened when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, announces his engagement to the daughter of a notorious right-wing politician. At a meeting of the parents, Albin and Georges attempt to cover up their vibrant lifestyle, with the help of their friend, Jacqueline.

In exploring the notion of gay marriage and parenting, John says the show (adapted as a musical in 1983) was ahead of its time. "In the 80s we were still fighting for our personal rights. Now gay marriage is completely acceptable," he says. "Essentially, Albin is Jean-Michel's mother. Their story is a comfort to me, having lost my own mum. It's a story about family and about being yourself; everything comes from that truth. That's why this show has such longevity.

"Albin's song, I Am What I Am is played at weddings, funerals, anti-Trump marches - it has a huge resonance. For me, as an actor and a gay man, to have that powerful moment is a joy."

As a boy, John trained at the Royal Ballet School and went on to study musical theatre, before joining the cast of the original UK tour of Cats, aged 16. He played several roles in the hit show, including Mr Mistoffelees and Rum Tum Tugger, and later joined the West End production.

As a dancer and choreographer, he has worked with acts such as U2, Pet Shop Boys and Mica Paris, and in 2008 he became a household name, playing amiable Christian Clarke in EastEnders. John returned to his theatrical roots in 2010 as a judge on BBC1's Over The Rainbow, seeking an actress to play Dorothy in Andrew Lloyd Webber's revival of The Wizard of Oz. His other theatre credits include A Chorus Line and Chicago, which saw John wearing the shoes of sharp-suited Billy Flynn.

For La Cage Aux Folles, it takes John two hours to get ready for his dual roles of Albin and Zara, and he has more than a dozen costume changes in the first act alone. "There's a lot that's fabulous about this show, but underneath all the dressing up and the sparkle is something that has great meaning to people," he says. "In Albin and Zara, I'm playing two very different people. He is unsure of himself, she is devastatingly confident. I'm having the time of my life but I take these roles very seriously. This is the Hamlet of musical theatre, I'm not doing it lightly.

"Everything I've learned - ballet, panto, musical theatre, TV, drama - is going into it. I feel like it's all led me here."

John, who stars alongside American actor Adrian Zmed (William Shatner's co-star in Eighties TV show T J Hooker) and West End leading lady Marti Webb, is proud of the effect the show is having. "We get a standing ovation every night," he says. "To take this show around the country, in these dark times, and see people respond to it so passionately, is just heartwarming," he smiles. "I will always look back on this show and feel fondly about it."

* La Cage Aux Folles runs at the Alhambra from Tuesday to Saturday. For tickets call (01274) 432000.