Give actors the chance to camp it up and/ or ham it up and it's like ducks taking to water after a prolonged drought. Not that I am suggesting that our hard-working thespians are all hams at heart, but I suppose it's a welcome change to have the chance to do something with no hidden meanings, or strident emotions to conjure up night after night, and to just, well, have a bit of a laugh. And that's the kind of opportunity the cast of this show have been offered and have taken up with vigorous relish.
Already a hit on Broadway - where it continues to run - I've seen 'The Drowsy Chaperone' described as an 'homage to musicals of the Gatsby era'. But that doesn't wash with me - it's basically taking the mickey out of musicals of that period, rather than paying them anything vaguely approaching a compliment, which at least for me is what an 'homage' is all about.
The show starts off in the dark. We hear a voice say 'I hate theatre'. That tingled the funny bones of the assembled theatrical glitterati, so not a bad start. The voice belongs to 'Man in chair', who turns out not to be sitting in a theatre waiting for a performance to begin, but in his own small, basement apartment. Played by Bob Martin who also co-wrote the book, 'Man In Chair' is an aficionado of 1920s musicals. Not only does he know the genre intimately, he's also prepared to share the minutae of his copious knowledge of plots, characters and actors with us, particularly with regard to what is supposed to be his favourite musical from the era 'The Drowsy Chaperone'. While playing his vinyl recording to us, the show miraculously unfolds right there in his apartment.
As 'Man in chair' tells us, there's not much of a plot to this fictitious chunk of musical nonsense - he sums it up as "Mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding”. Essentially, it's about a variety star who's about to be married to a rugged hunk, and who must not see the bride before the wedding day. A host of oddball characters have been assembled for the wedding including 'The Drowsy Chaperone' (Elaine Page) herself whose drowsiness is the result of drinking champagne and rather too many 'Gibsons' (Martinis for those of you unfamiliar with cocktails). There's also a ludicrously loud Italian gigolo named Adolpho, who pronounces 'ladies' as 'lidies' and sports a streak of grey in his hair, making him appear as something of a skunk. A rotund radio producer has problems with two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs, and the affair is hosted by an eccentric lady called Mrs Tottendale assisted by her butler, Underling.
As one might expect, the characterisations are larger-than-life and, well, over the top. But that's how it's all meant to be in this musical spoof, which boasts a well-crafted set by David Gallo and exorbitantly glitzy costumes by Gregg Barnes, all bolstered by some good choreography - some neat tap dancing here - though the musical numbers themselves aren't likely to stick for too long in the average memory.
Though Bob Martin delivers some humorous and clever dialogue with numerous double entendres and asides, it's not always consistently funny. There were also moments in the 'musical' - such as the 'ice water routine' between Mrs Tottendale (Anne Rogers) and her butler (played by Nickolas Grace) which surely wouldn't have been considered funny in the 1920s, and most definitely aren't funny today - and telling us scenes such as this aren't funny, doesn't make them funny either.
'The Drowsy Chaperone' is generally entertaining, with flashes of subtle and not-so-subtle humour, but at an hour and 30 minutes - without an interval - it seems on the short side. But even then, I found I was ready to leave before the end - once you've got the basic hang of the show, there's not much to sustain it - certainly not for the usual 2 plus hours of a typical musical. A kind of affectionate oddity, it might have an uphill struggle finding the right target audience, particularly considering it has fierce competition, much of which is longer and with rather more bite.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Surprises and delights." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " For all the energy of Casey Nicholaw's production, I would readily sacrifice the whole of this glitzy charade for 10 minutes of the real thing by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Delightful show that has a strong claim to being one of the silliest musicals ever written...Only the self-importantly serious and the chronically depressed will fail to enjoy this preposterously entertaining evening." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "Affectionate spoof...However clever and appealing it is, this musical is an airy confection without much substance." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The piece fails to work on any level."
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore