Review – The Drowsy Chaperone, Novello Theatre, London

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Drowsy Chaperone, WEW masks Andrew is frequently in a drowsy state when he visits the theatre these days; perhaps it’s the alcohol, or possibly the company he keeps.

But something about The Drowsy Chaperone had titillated his jaded palate. Could it be watching the comedy number “Show Off ” on YouTube? He certainly seemed to have adopted it as his new signature tune.

He had been banging on about Drowsy for months. Ever the big spender (his previous theme tune, by coincidence), he was even whinging on about crossing the Atlantic to catch the 5 times Tony-winning show on Broadway. Phil persuaded him to exercise a little restraint and tough it out for the London version.

Outside The Drowsy ChaperoneSo then Andrew started whinging about booking tickets for the London transfer at the Novello Theatre. Again, Phil – ever the (albeit somewhat shrill) voice of reason – cautioned him to keep his wipe clean purse shut and wait for the inevitable offers.

Most shows are slashing their prices these days and as the offers came flooding in (see footnotes) and Phil felt vindicated. In fact, he positively crowed. The prices were dropping faster than demand for Wicked tickets and the offers were (unlike Wicked) getting better and better .

But as the previews drew closer would he have left it too late? For Andrew it was too much like an episode of Phil’s favourite telly quiz Deal Or No Deal and he was becoming very tetchy indeed. So much so that he worried he was turning into Phil.

But come they did and – having been intrigued by their recent guest reviewer‘s talk of a mythical “upstairs” to theatres – they decided to seek out this alien world and find out how the other half lives by booking seats upstairs. In fact, there are three “upstairs” to the Novello so they went for broke and booked seats in the most upstairs of them all – the “balcony”.

So it was that Andrew and his blousy chaperone (Phil) found themselves in the balcony of the Novello, clinging on to the sides of the auditorium for dear life and looking down at the tops of the heads of the little actors in the distance. If Drowsy could impress from here, it would surely be a hit.

The conceit of Drowsy is ingeniously simple. The show opens with a drably dressed man of a certain age, in his drab apartment, prattling on about his favourite 1920s musical The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s a very big fan of musical theatre. Andrew had never seen himself portrayed on stage before. Suddenly everything became frighteningly clear to Phil.

But we digress. From a total blackout (see footnotes) and we hear the voice of the Man in Chair (Bob Martin, left) musing on musical theatre: ” Dear God, let this be good!” How often the Whingers have found themselves in the dark uttering the same mantra.

Man in Chair states he hates intervals, mobiles going off and obviously likes a drink. He says knows what it’s like to pay $100 and pray that the fourth wall doesn’t come crashing down. Andrew was in seventh heaven.

And so it progresses. The seemingly simple device of a slightly sad musical theatre fan playing his precious record (whose staging is magically summoned up in his apartment) to the audience is a masterful device which seamlessly entwines both nostalgia with knowing post-modernism (what? – Phil).

The unlikely genesis of this show has been well reported elsewhere and although Andrew scrawled copious notes (Phl’s notebook had slipped down behind the seats in front during one of his vertiginous panic attacks) his notes comprise principally of a series of wonderful in-jokes which – if he were to transcribe them – would simply spoil the show for you.

It has to be said that the “big number” (“Show Off”, see below) is by far the best and as it’s only the fourth number in the show, it’s mostly downhill from then on, musically speaking.

But it’s full of bon mots. Of theatre in the 1920s:

Theatre was the only place where stupid people could earn a living [pause]. These were the days before television, of course.

Martin is the star of the show and very funny. If you’re forking out big bucks to see Elaine (Write it down!) Paige as the titular heroine (although why would you?) you may be a little disappointed. She has only a couple of numbers – none of which really shows off her vocal talents to the full – and her limited comic abilities mean her part never soars. Casting Julia McKenzie might have given the part some oomph.

Warning: Not all of the songs are by any means as strong as “Show Off”. In fact, only “Bride’s Lament” (about monkeys and pedestals) competes. Pastiche only works if it shifts gear several times. But what’s unique about The Drowsy Chaperone is that this is that rare thing: a genuinely original musical not based on anything except a love and understanding of the genre. See it for its rarity value if nothing else before the next glut of conversions hits town.

As the Whingers skipped out onto the streets, Andrew wore a rare contemplative air. Phil wondered if Andrew had recognised himself on that stage. Andrew is now showing an unhealthy interest in the Broadway hit Grey Gardens – The Musical (see footnotes). Phil can only wonder.

Footnotes:

  • The show begins in blackout and to help achieve this theatre staff are positioned around the auditorium to temporarily mask the illuminated exit signs with purpose-built placards. As she reached up to perform her task our usherette was heard to sigh: “I went to Italia Conti for five years to do this.”
  • The previous night Andrew had demanded Phil’s company at the NFT BFI Southbank for screenings of Grey Gardens and The Beales of Grey Gardens. Phil hadn’t been keen, being already familiar with the cult movie and fretting that the sight of these eccentric biddies might prove a little too close to the bone for Andrew. So although, Phil may have not have seen Andrew portrayed on stage before The Drowsy Chaperone, he’d certainly seen him on screen. What will he make of the Broadway musical version when it comes to London?
  • An ad in the programme states “The Daily Telegraph is the proud media partner to The Drowsy Chaperone”. Isn’t pride one of those seven deadly sin things? Anyway the Whingers will be reading Telegraph critic Charles “I like everything” Spencer’s review very closely for evidence of partisanship.
  • The programme also mentions that the Novello (then the Strand) Theatre closed in 2005 for a £4.5 million refurbishment programme. It certainly looks impressive but while they were at it they should have fixed the roof. Two (plastic!) buckets were positioned near the Whingers’ seats to catch drips from the ceiling. It provided a rather soothing plink-plonk percussion accompaniment to much of the show but clearly the roof was just showing off.
  • And a mystery too! Check out the latest on the “Write it Down” catchphrase.
  • At the time of writing, offers are available here, here and here for instance.
  • This is the best bit:

POSTSCRIPT 30 May 07:

Andrew went to see it again, this time without Phil. And – as so often happens in these circumstances – he enjoyed it more.

7 Responses to “Review – The Drowsy Chaperone, Novello Theatre, London”


  1. Bob Martin was by far the best thing about this show on this side of the pond. Is it sad to admit that I could relate to his character???

    Unfortunately, as you’ll see in my review of the Broadway show, I found much of the musical within the musical downright lame, but do I agree with you on the tunes you enjoyed, along with “Toledo Surprise” that captivates, particularly when the record skips.

    Finally, as for “Grey Gardens,” I forced myself to watch the documentaries, but am thankful I did given how much I adored the Broadway musical, which in my mind deserves to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.

  2. City Slicker Says:

    SOS — I must agree. I saw it last night (from the balcony as well as it were) and if it weren’t for Bob Martin I would have walked out.

    Ratehr disappointed but manage dto console myself with a few glasses at Cafe Des Amis up the road.

    Disappointed indeed.


  3. City Slicker – you and we and Natasha should definitely make a night of it very soon. Our mutual commitment to drinking and theatre would guarantee a very successful evening out.

  4. City Slicker Says:

    Sounds great – count me in.

    I am off to see Leaves of Glass at the Soho tonight. No interval so am hoping it is good enough that a vino beforehand will get me through it!


  5. I would be up for that. Have a had an entirely theatre-free week and am starting to get withdrawal symptons.


  6. […] of shows because they’re just that desperate to fill up their sad and lonely nights with that one little gem that they want to be sure they don’t miss and spend years regretting not having seen. For the […]


  7. […] short-lived West End incarnation, proved life-changing for me in some ways (as it convinced me the West End Whingers’ blog was a source of genius tips on what to see, which led to, oh, writing this blog, eventually, and being a part of a “theater blogging […]


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