The Drowsy Chaperone
Paul Campion | 05 May 2017 14:37pm
Photo: David Ovenden
“I hate theatre” announces a male voice in the dark at the beginning of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’. What a way to start a show!
When the lights go up we discover that this voice belongs to a rather shabby man in a chair who turns out not to be sitting in a theatre waiting for a performance to begin, but in his own equally shabby apartment. It also transpires that while this man dislikes theatre, he’s an obsessive lover of musical theatre. And the show he loves more than any other is a long-forgotten (and fictitious) 1920s confection called ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’. To illustrate why he likes it so much, he digs out his vinyl copy of the cast recording and plays it to us. As he does, the show comes to life right there in his apartment, before our very eyes, with Man in Chair (we never discover his name) providing a wry, witty commentary.
As Man in Chair tells us, in musicals of this era plots were really just an excuse to get from one show-stopping number to the next and this is no exception. Variety star Janet van de Graaf, star of ‘The Feldzieg Follies’, is about to give it all up to get hitched to dashing oil tycoon Robert Martin, who must not get a glimpse of his bride-to-be before the wedding. Mixed into this cocktail of silliness are a whole host of wacky characters such as a fabulously OTT Italian gigolo called Adolpho; Kitty, a wannabe flapper who wants to take Janet’s place in the ‘Follies’; Feldzeig, producer of said Follies, who is having trouble with two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs and the eccentric Mrs Tottendale who is hosting the wedding, assisted by her faithful butler Underling. Then there’s the titular Chaperone, whose drowsiness – the result of one or three too many drinks – is the cause of the mayhem.
I first caught this show during its inexplicably brief West End run back in the mid-noughties and – rather like Man in Chair – immediately became an obsessive fan. Back then I thought it one of the funniest, most ingenious shows I’d ever seen. Under Emma J. Leaver’s inventive and assured direction this SEDOS production elevates it to even greater heights.
Here, the central conceit of watching a ‘recording’ of a 1920s musical acted out in someone’s apartment is exploited for every comic possibility imaginable. To go into greater detail would be to spoil things for future audiences, so I’ll just say that if you go (and you really, really should) prepare to be delighted and surprised at every turn.
As Man in Chair, Alex Baker holds the whole show together with an infectious geeky enthusiasm, which every now and then poignantly hints at a darker loneliness beneath. Corin Miller makes a vivaciously glamorous Janet van der Graaf , delivering a beautifully-acted and superbly-sung performance, particularly in her number where she declares “I don’t want to show off” and proceeds to do just that. Her sassy (but sleepy) chaperone is played by Vicky Terry in a performance as gorgeously glittering as her costume. As the debonair groom-to-be, Angus Jacobs is every inch the Twenties musical hero, with his fine singing, excellent tap-dancing and remarkable ability to roller-skate blindfold (yes, really). In lesser hands his nervous best man George could be a bit of a makeweight role, but Lewis McKenzie makes the most of every moment with an endearingly gawky ‘gee whiz’ persona.
There is no danger of the character of outrageous gigolo Adolpho ever being described as ‘makeweight’. This is a stand-out role begging to be hammed up to the hilt and Kevin Murray does just that. With his knowing looks, perfect timing and grey-streaked almost skunk-like hairdo he seduces the audience as well as every lady in sight.
Elsewhere, Heather Broderick is charmingly ditzy as the wannabe flapper Katie; Dan Saunders suitably shifty as the scheming producer Feldzeig; Penny Rodie and Matt Bentley make a memorably dotty partnership as the eccentric Mrs. Tottendale and her butler Underling and Siobhan Aarons makes an impressive return to the SEDOS stage as Trix the Aviatrix (no 1920s musical is complete without an aviatrix). Add in Tom Chesover and Inti Conde as a pair of outrageously hilarious gangsters disguised as pastry chefs and you have a cast to die for.
The staging makes perfect use of the Bridewell space with Oliver Lewitt’s lighting and Stuart Massey’s ingenious set design combining to great effect. With the help of their ‘Sewing Circle’ (as it’s credited in the programme), Sara Simon-Vermot and Clare Harding have dressed the cast impeccably, while Laura de Longh’s choreography is gloriously and epically Busby Berkley-esque, yet deft and detailed when it needs to be. Special mention too for Conductor Adrian Hau and his orchestra who don’t miss a beat in what must be a tricky show to accompany.
It’s not hard to see why ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ didn’t last long in the West End. While the songs are all original and superbly written, there isn’t a ‘stand-out’ number, the title is perhaps a little esoteric for a British audience, it’s not a juke-box musical and the dreaded Andrew Lloyd-Webber had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Please don’t let any of that deter you. This is a brilliant, brilliant show that has always deserved to be seen. In the case of this production, more so than ever.
Photo: David Ovenden