This frothy, knowing show, a spoof of 1920s musicals, began life as a skit performed at a wedding, before blossoming into a Tony-award winning Broadway hit.
It opens with a man’s voice bemoaning how theatre can so often let you down; he goes on to complain how so many shows these days are overlong and over-hyped and destined to disappoint. The lights go up and the man is revealed to us, a slight chap in a baggy cardigan and corduroy slacks, sitting in a cluttered apartment beside a stack of beloved LPs. He proceeds to play one of these albums to us: a musical called The Drowsy Chaperone, which he talks us through, scene by scene, song by song.
The man is played by Bob Martin, whose role it was on Broadway and who also co-wrote the show with Don McKellar. It’s an endearing, warm performance, sweet and affecting, and one that helps considerably in skimming over some of the show’s patchier moments. As the album plays, the musical comes to life in the man’s apartment and the barred windows and battered refrigerator are replaced by a succession of colourful sets.
The plot of The Drowsy Chaperone, the musical within a musical, is paper thin, involving a wedding, a comedy Italian in a bad wig, and a couple of gangsters disguised as pastry chefs. Janet Van De Graaff is a leggy stage starlet. She’s about to marry her dim but toothsome paramour, but various obstacles keep springing up to jeopardise the wedding this slenderest of stories is all that’s required to trigger all manner of comic business involving mistake identities and silly schemes.
The strongest musical number by far is Show Off, in which Janet (played by the superb Summer Strallen) explains how happy she is to give up her acting career in order to settle down with the man she loves while all the time performing cartwheels and high-kicks. Nothing else comes close, musically speaking, which is one of the show’s biggest hurdles spoof or no spoof, it could do with a bit more musical punch.
Elaine Paige is good fun as the gin-happy chaperone of the title. She sends herself up winningly and revels in her character’s one big song, As We Stumble Along. But it’s a small role and doesn’t really require a star of such clout.
The show does feature a number of superb comic moments, not least when the man accidentally plays the wrong record and the stage is taken over by a different show altogether. There are also a number of enjoyably post-modern asides, particularly the references chucked in specifically for a West End audience.
The man’s nerdy enthusiasm for the show he’s describing is such that you can’t help but share it (even when the show itself seems rather unworthy of his adoration), and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments. His portrait of a lonely man, revelling in his obsession with old musicals that he’s never seen, only listened to, is also surprisingly poignant. But ultimately it’s a show that, by its very nature, is quite narrow in scope and I wonder how many people it will really appeal to.