29 May 2007

The Drowsy Chaperone – Novello Theatre, Monday 28th May 2007

I would quite happily parade up and down Covent Garden in a sandwich-board reading “Go and see this show!” If you’re looking for comedy, escapism, cynicism, observative wit or just pretty costumes and a set you can come out humming – what are you waiting for? Hurry along and get your ticket now – because a wonderful treat is awaiting you.

The Drowsy Chaperone” is basically one of those ridiculous, unbelievable, kitsch Broadway shows of the type that use French windows with stylised garden backdrops, packaged in a new and interesting and entertaining way. The curtain rises to total darkness – even the house lights go off completely. A few seconds of silence, during which the shifting and muttering of the audience can be heard. A nasal, slightly whiny Canadian voice addresses us through the darkness: “Do you always pray during those seconds before curtain-up?” The audience laughs, slightly discomforted. “I mean, you never know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, do you? Do you sit there and think ‘Oh Elton John, when are you going to give up this charade….’” And we’re off….. After a few more minutes of slightly camp bon mots, the lights go up to reveal The Man in the Chair (we never find out what his real name is) – middle aged, scrawny, wearing a baggy cardigan of the type best described as “comfy”. A one room apartment which has seen better days – single pull down bed, Baby Belling cooker, a standard lamp, a record player…… yes, a record player. The Man in The Chair is a Broadway Musical officianado* – but only of those shows so old and obscure that they appear on vinyl. His favourite is a rare recording of a show called “The Drowsy Chaperone”. He listens to it when he’s feeling “blue”. Its comforting, like an old friend. Would we like to hear it? The audience make encouraging but vague noises. Nobody on stage addresses the audience – unless it’s a Very Bad Tennessee Williams Play (see review of The Lady of Dubuque). You would? Wonderful. Now, listen and imagine…….as the music starts, the stage lights change the double doors of the fridge fly open and in come two butlers and two housemaids, carrying old suitcases and bunches of flowers and singing and dancing their way around the stage. The Man in the Chair looks on excitedly. What a show this is going to be!

More than that I won’t say, as it might spoil the enjoyment of anyone yet to see the show. I defy anyone to see this and not be entertained. Both of us were initially quite suspicious – its another show without an interval (See review of A Matter of Life and Death) and its only 90 minutes. But there is a reason for the lack of interval, which is so neatly integrated into the show that you neither notice it or miss it – and I think would rather resent it if there were one.

Like the great 18th century landscape gardens or an episode of “The Simpsons”, you can enjoy this show on several levels. If you don’t understand the “In Jokes” and references, that’s no problem at all. It’s still great. But if you have even the most passing acquaintance with the classic musicals of stage and screen, you’ll enjoy it all the more, as references to and satires on many of these (both subtle and subtle-as-a-brick) positively litter the script. I spotted “Kiss Me, Kate”, “The Boyfriend”, “Crazy for You”, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, “Anything Goes”, “Flying Down to Rio” (the Busby Berkely film), “Me and My Girl”, “My Fair Lady”, “42nd Street”, “Phantom of the Opera”, bad gay porn films and “Singin’ in the Rain” – and there is a uproariously funny nod to “The King and I” which must have cost a fortune and which I still can’t think about without grinning with delight (the fact that Elaine Paige, playing “The Emperor of China’s Elocutionist” and wondering in song about the differences between “Asians and Caucasians” played Mrs. Anna in a terribly overblown production of this at the Palladium about 8 years ago was not lost on me or several other members of the audience either).

As “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a “classic Broadway show”, we get all the requisite items. Hunky leading man with that Colgate Smile (we find out that the actor “playing” him used to advertise cocaine-flavoured toothpaste) a la John Barrowman, leggy leading lady, comedy ingénue, two gangsters in disguise, comedy foreigner, once-great-and-still-clinging-onto-showbiz older woman in part designed to show off her fading skills off sympathetically, humorous butler (secretly in love with aforementioned woman), tapdancing servants, comedy duet, love duet, plaintive moonlight ballad, big dance routine to end “Act One”, romantic complications of complete banality and a happy-ever-after finale. The unexpected bonus is that this is all packaged in a witty, acidic, heartbreaking framework of narration by The Man in the Chair. As the “finale of Act 2” hits its climax…….no, go and see it yourself and find out.

The casting was excellent throughout. This is an ensemble piece and it would be unfair to pick holes in individual performances. Summer Strallen (great name, eh?) was everything and more you want from a musical comedy heroine – beauty, wit, legs up to her eyebrows and a fabulous delivery (her “Show Off” has got to be the best number I’ve seen on stage for a long time), John Partridge her “John Barrowman” - perhaps not up to the very best vocal standards but hey, can you dance a waltz on roller skates? You can? Blindfolded? No, me neither. Selina Chiltern was equally fab as the comedy ingenue’s comedy ingénue – ditzy and titsy to the max. Joseph Allessi was stunningly funny as the “comedy foreigner” and shows the performance of the chap playing this stock role in “A Matter of Life and Death” for the tatty, laboured, lazy, desperately unfunny thing it is. Allessi could probably out-comedy foreigner the entire cast of Allo, Allo.

And Elaine Paige – oh yes, Elaine Paige is in it, I nearly forgot. Amazingly, she really doesn’t make that much impact – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. All the roles are written and blended so well, both in terms of stage time and effect, that no one individual dominates the show. She plays the title role as a parody of Elaine Paige really. You know, the brassy, Broadway chanteuse with the big rousing solo number 2/3 of the way through Act One. Perhaps her “big belt” in this number was a bit underpowered but our opinions differed here. I thought she might be saving herself for opening night next week, CBB thought she’s a little past her prime and was giving it all she had left. Go and see it yourself and decide.

The pivotal role of the Man in the Chair was taken by the show’s writer, Bob Martin (no chocolate for dogs jokes please). And he was fantastic. No other word will really do. He draws you into his sad little fantasy world with charm and wit and self-deprecating humour (and I do like a nice bit of self-deprecating humour). You really get to like him. He creates a truly believable waspish, loveable, middle-aged-Musicals-queen and you rejoice in his happiness at the end. The sets were wonderfully, endlessly inventive and perfect. There’s even a “drawing room” cloth for the Butler and Mrs. Tottington scene, which is exactly what would be on stage during the number for these two characters if it were a “proper” show – you know, they stand in front of it on a small strip of stage for 10 minutes or so while the chorus take a break, change costumes and snatch a well-earned fag and the stagecrew make a complicated set change. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. The perfect antidote to all the “worthy but dull”, “mega-musical with leading role given to someone who won it on a television programme”, “based on career of 80s pop group/dreadful film loved by chav girls/naff American TV series” stuff on in the West End at the moment. Curtain down by 9.45pm, which means you don’t have to fight all the other theatregoers for a seat on the train – but that’s an added bonus. Go and see it yourself. I’ve said that several times during the course of this review. But just in case you didn’t hear me – go and see it yourself. You’ll be awfully glad that you did.

*Any similarity with the recent life of Mr. C. Bebee is hotly denied by the author

27 May 2007

A Matter of Life and Death – National Theatre, Friday 26th May 2007

24 hours after seeing this, I still can’t work out whether I loved it or loathed it – whether it was an affront on a much loved and classic film by a troupe of circus acrobats and clowns or whether it was a bold experiment in physical theatre intended to bring new life to a faded story and a new audience to the National. I’m sure all my readers are a cultivated and intelligent lot, but I will recap the story briefly as I suspect the review will not make much sense without it. Peter, a WW2 pilot, is shot down returning from a bombing raid on a foggy night over the channel. He makes radio contact with June, a radio operator back at base who attempts to talk him down. Peter bails out without a parachute and should, logically, die in the attempt. However, the angel sent to fetch him misses him in the fog – and in heaven, the Recording Angel finds she is a soul short. The angel is sent back to earth to collect him – but Peter and June have met and fallen in love. The angel reports back and is told that Peter will be allowed to plead his case in the Court of Heaven to continue living. Defence and Prosecution state their arguments – but ultimately it all comes down to the toss of a single coin; heads he wins, tails he loses. Which way will the coin fall?

What I loved about this production was its physical inventiveness. The company wisely didn’t try to present a metaphysical question in a literal way. Instead, on a starry circle of stage, lit from above with torches, four hospital beds, four upside down bicycles (being pedalled by four upside down nurses), four blazing dustbins and a spinnaker-shaped flight of metal stairs became a Lancaster bomber hurtling down through the clouds. Atop a column a man in pyjamas plays with a paper aeroplane. A vast cyclorama of empty sky and a couple of buckets of sand become a lonely, windswept beach. Two sets of the stairs become the bank “where the wild thyme blows” in the hospital production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, atop which sit Titania and her fairies in the shape of nurses dressed in floral curtains. A pair of carpet slippers become Bottom’s ears. A hospital bed becomes a garden swing, and four of them become the iconic stairway upon which Peter and June scramble depending on which face of the huge, slowly spinning coin above the stage currently faces front (there are a lot of hospital beds in this production – and indeed Heaven is portrayed as some kind of glorious recuperation ward in which the “patients” lounge around in their jimjams, eating sweets from ever-refilling paper bags and being watched over by efficient yet kindly nurses, with white starched headdresses taking the place of wings). The ping pong match is played with a white tennis ball, which is fixed to the end of a 10 foot black pole, which is swung from side to side by one of the ever-present nurses/angels. The doctor’s fatal motorbike ride through the storm is represented by a tiny model motorbike, complete with rider and headlight, being pushed around the stage by a “patient”. And in the final scene, the seated ranks of the audience become the hushed galleries of onlookers as the Judge sums up. All of this I loved.

Now for the things I didn’t. I hated the fact that the company tried to turn this into a musical. Introducing “comic” songs into this piece is just wrong. Music yes, but songs no – particularly irritating was the one sung by “Bottom” called “Now that I’m Dead”, which wasn’t funny, wasn’t relevant and wasn’t even particularly well sung, notwithstanding the fact that I thought it in extremely poor taste. The onstage band and singer provided music which was completely out of touch with the piece, being too loud, too intrusive, brash and of completely the wrong style and period. I hated the fact that the villagers shown on the “camera obscura” owned by the doctor (a “camera obscura” is a small darkened room with a round table in the centre. In the middle of the ceiling is a hole, through which light enters. By a cunning contrivance of lenses, images of the outside world are projected down onto the table. Turning a handle at the side of the table rotates the lenses, so the “projector” can rotate through 360 degrees) were presented as if they were walking around modern-day Waterloo, with the London Eye and the riverfront. I loathed the fact that some of the characters and scenes were turned into little more than circus acts – and unfunny circus acts at that. I hated the fact that there was no interval – perhaps the company were trying to present the piece in a “filmic” style but two solid hours is a long time without an interval at the theatre. I bet the theatre bar manager had something to say about that.

Individual performances were, on the whole, average. Tristan Sturrock made a likeable Peter, but David Niven he ain’t, love. Douglas Hodge was an affable and believable Frank, Lindsey Marshall played June as just that little bit too common for my liking. Andy Williams played Dr. McEwan as the kind of camp, affected twat that I thought died along with the music hall. Chike Okonkwo obviously failed to realise that, in the 1940’s, surgeons were upper class and spoke well, even if they were black. And Mike Shepherd played Harold (and “Bottom”) in such an irritating and whiny fashion that I longed to be rid of him and his bloody carpet slipper ears. By far the most unlikeable portrayal was that of “Conductor 71” – the angel sent to collect Peter from his burning plane (he's Icelandic and his name is completely un-typeable on a normal keyboard!). Gone was the polite decorum of Marius Goring (in the film version) as the French aristocrat beheaded in the Revolution – what we got was a Norwegian trapeze artist/magician/circus clown/“comedian” who apparently died during a misjudged escapology performance centring round a vat of milk. This presumably was changed in order to give an aspect of “theatricality” (and allow for lots of desperately unfunny “comedy” - this was as funny as a five-day old rollmop herring on a piece of dry Ryvita and was very, very wearing by the end of the evening - and lots of rope climbing and abseiling). CBB has recently posited the theory that he was dressed to look like Borat and is a parody of him (can one parody a parody?) in order to give some kind of "cultural reference point" for the bored teenagers dragged by their Niven-loving parents.

CBB loathed much of the piece (it is, after all, based on a classic film – one that he’s never seen but about which he nonetheless feels himself qualified to expound on) and the fact that the script was apparently developed through the rehearsal period rather than being learned from the page (“This is NOT the sort of thing that should be seen at The National Theatre – it should be done for ten pence in a church hall somewhere”. PROPER the-atre, of course (preferably starring Judi Dench in a farthingale, Donald Sinden in a pantouffle, or Helen Mirren with her baps out – or all three, if possible, maybe in something obscure by Euripedes in a translation by Moliere) is the ONLY kind of the-atre suitable for the hallowed stages of The National. I just laughed and called him a “reactionary old fart”.

And finally, a note on that ever-spinning coin. At this performance, it came down “heads – you win”. But from one of the “proper” reviews I’ve heard about, the ending really does depend on the spin of a single coin and might just as well have come down “tails – you lose”. The problem is, I’m not really sure I could sit through the show again in order to find out. I’ll stick with my DVD of the film. At least you get the fabulous moving staircase, David Niven, James Robertson “What’s the Bleeding Time?” Justice and a notable lack of rollmop.