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

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