St Andrews 60th Anniversary production, The Drowsy Chaperone, is my sort of musical. Roughly translated that means it ain’t one. None of your Rodgers and Hammerstein thigh slapping cowboys here. It is more a play with an imagined musical, a pretty naff one, seen through the eyes of one of life’s natural losers. He sits in his chair, boils his kettles, shouts at phones he refuses to answer, and plays his records. He drinks small brandies from half bottles, such folk do, and constantly pops pills. Didn’t see him doing the latter, but such dysfunctional nerds have them in their cardigan somewhere. Trust me, I am an expert on neurotics. And the record he plays for us is a recording of his mother’s favourite. The fictional 1928 Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. Never heard of it? Well neither have I or anyone else. But the Man in Chair (a beautifully crafted portrayal from Steve Peters) and his performers brought it all to highly comic and inventive life. In other words its creators, headed by Canadian actor Bob Martin, had conceived an absolute gem of a theatrical experience. It was full of more surprises than you usually get in half a dozen shows. You gasped and giggled in equal proportions. If you missed out, it was your loss.
That’s not to say I was completely bowled over by the production. A greater contrast between the isolated refuge of our storyteller and his whiz-bang performers’ platform would have been more pleasing. This set had marginally too much of a stage musical look to it and reality and imagination were only partially defined. But I am picky, you all know that. Explains why I also sniffed at obvious stage markings, not a good idea in a raked theatre, and the occasional dodgy mike. But, unsurprisingly, it all mattered hardly a jot. Our Man in Chair wheeled out those performers and fleshed them out. You learnt about the weird musical characters, the Broadway acting set and their bizarre friends and enemies, and you learnt about the fictional actors playing them. This anorak in the chair knew everything about them. You know the saying ‘he should get out more’, well they coined it for him.
He played the record and the actors twirled and sang in a glitzy wedding plot I have no intention of outlining. You wouldn’t believe it anyway. The musical wasn’t important, only the magnificent way it was performed. If the record stuck and repeated, the actors stuck and repeated. If he stopped the record he stopped the actors, there were some superb freezes, and in a hilarious opening to act two we got the wrong musical. Something about the Great Wall of China. I kid you not. I have never heard an audience laugh so much. And that included this cynic. They topped it all with a wedding in the sky that was rich in theatrical imagination. I mean, two ironing boards and an electric fan? I told you that you should have seen it. In a large cast Joanna Yirrell stood out for a portrayal redolent of Hollywood Queen Ann Sheridan, lovely acting and singing and super hair, and Sarah Albert for the dizziest blonde I have ever seen on the local stage. Her Kitty was an absolute joy. Not often I get a chance to say things like that in a review.
Shan’t single out the others, this was very much a team piece, other than to say that Richard Cowling was a brave and beautifully over the top Aldolpho, and Andy Whalley a spiky, cigar chewing, Feldzieg. Beth Thomas conducted a lively unseen band, Jo Harris made them all dance their socks off, and Frances Hall directed. Hey ain’t I married to her? Makes not a jot of difference other than, unlike other directors, she gets the chance to kick this self opinionated old bastard out of bed.
But what about the Drowsy Chaperone? Isn’t she what the show is all about? Actually she isn’t and although Sharon Robinson played her alcoholic lines with pithy aplomb she is a bit of a marginal comic character. If I had the title role in this I would have thrown at least three strops. It’s really ‘The Man in Chair Musical’ but that’s even less catchy than the one chosen. The Chaperone, drowsy and red, was just one of the crazy team he conjured up. And from that first dangerous moment, a long and clever speech delivered in the dark, you just knew you were going to enjoy it. Not all the performances were top notch, I’m not blind even if I don’t want to be kicked out of bed, but they blended with style in a show which deserves every award those astute Americans gave it.
St Andrews Players did it justice and that, on your 60th Anniversary, can’t be bad.