The Drowsy Chaperone

Date 22nd October 2016
Society South Manchester AOS
Venue Z-Arts Theatre
Type of Production Musical
Director Stephanie Niland
Musical Director John G Barry
Choreographer Hannah Davis


Author: David Slater

This little gem of a show might be considered the ne plus ultra of the stage musical, so much so that after having seen it at the new home of SMAOS - the Z-Arts Theatre - it's difficult to understand why it isn't staged more widely and more often. Putting such a clever piece of work in the hands of such a talented society could only lead to a wonderful theatrical event: this was a majestic piece of entertainment which restored one's faith in the musical comedy genre and it would be difficult to imagine 'The Drowsy Chaperone' given a more intelligent or professional airing. The Z-Arts Theatre also proved to be a charming new venue and one which I am sure will open up a host of new staging opportunities for the society's future productions.

'The Drowsy Chaperone' is a multi-faceted work which manages to achieve a great deal, given that it is a relatively compact piece of musical theatre (and a shockingly underrated one at that.) This is a remarkable piece of musical theatre which pulls off so many tricks at once: a loving homage to the American musical comedies of the 1920s; an affectionate pastiche of the conventions of the genre; a hilarious knockabout comedy musical in its own right; a warm and affecting character study; a humorously skewed history lesson; a show-within-a-show... The sheer joy of the whole enterprise was palpable in the auditorium and the enthusiasm of the cast bounced out into the audience from the moment the lights dimmed in the auditorium, heralding the start of the show. Within minutes, I couldn't remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed taking my seat in a theatre as much as this (well, not that I could tell you about here anyway!)

Taking us on our musical journey as 'Man in Chair', Kevin Proctor excelled in a performance which was well-judged, finely nuanced, wryly humorous, emotionally engaging and - without wishing to gild the lily too much - simply superb. Kevin delivered a fully rounded character who was engaging company for the whole show, dragging the audience through the fourth wall willingly and magnificently. Slyly humorous and wickedly camp, Kevin communicated 'Man in Chair's love of musical theatre - and 'The Drowsy Chaperone' in particular of course - while at the same time making us aware throughout the show of the character's hidden depths. As a guide through this meta musical, it would be hard to imagine anyone making a better job than Kevin of this demanding role.

As the divine chaos got underway, the first thing of note to really ring out was the sumptuous sound summoned up by John G Barry's orchestra: great work here and a faultless musical experience from both the band and the vocalists throughout the show. In the best tradition of musicals of a certain vintage, what better way to open the show than with a wonderful chorus number introducing us all to all of the cast - one at a time of course - and the impending wedding of Janet Van De Graaff and Robert Martin, Broadway legend and oil tycoon respectively (naturally) at the mansion of society hostess, Mrs Tottendale?! The simple set was nicely decorated and with the addition of some very well chosen props, helped to both let the audience's imagination fill in the gaps, while at the same time giving an exceptionally apposite physical interpretation of the lighthearted mood of the piece. Choreography from Hannah Davis was that rare thing these days: judged perfectly to suit the mood of the piece and to make the most of the talents of the performers, rather than being an exercise in thrashing about for its own sake (or as a stand-in for the lack of plot, to facilitate a scene change or - step forward 'Cats' - because there isn't anything else to the show at all).

As everyone on stage is effectively playing two 'characters' at once, the layers of artifice which the show simultaneously celebrates and sends up were clear from the start. There wasn't a weak link in the chain on stage with everyone in the cast clearly enjoying themselves and really entering into the spirit of the enterprise. Kelly Harrington was every inch the leading lady as 'Janet Van De Graaff' and gave a bravura performance, looking and sounding quite sublime throughout the show. 'Robert Martin' was played by Andrew Ryder with another faultless display on stage - not an easy task when roller-skating while blindfolded! - and Andrew's characterisation was spot on too. Vicki Clarkson tore up the stage with her every appearance as 'The Drowsy Chaperone' in a marvellous portrayal which again, perfectly captured the character. A wonderful summation of every Broadway diva you can think of, coupled with Dorothy Squires' headgear (and fondness for a tipple!) Vicki created a technicolor character and made the part very much her own. Stereotypical Latin lover 'Aldolpho' was essayed with a bewilderingly outré performance by Sam McVaigh which wandered off into the realms of the surreal on occasion, albeit amusingly so. Showbiz impresario 'Victor Feldzieg' was very well played by Tom Guest who gave the role a very polished and professional outing and would-be leading lady 'Kitty' was just exactly as shrill and ditzy as you'd expect; another perfect portrait from Rosie Barnes. 'Mrs Tottendale' was played with a baffled exuberance by Eleanor Ford and her all-purpose factotum 'Underling' was played with scene stealing glee by an eternally deadpan Mal Wallace. Best man 'George' was a nicely judged and skilful role in the hands of Anthony Sales and finally, crashing in from a nearby production of 'Kiss Me Kate', pastry chefs cum gangsters (aka 'The Tall Brothers') came across very well, with Oliver Pirk and Chris Drayton giving very nicely contrasting performances as the 'Toledo Surprise' inspiring duo. Not forgetting a whirlwind turn by Laura Sullivan as 'Trix' who bookended the show in spectacular fashion. The whole cast, principals and chorus combined, came together to illuminate this marvellous musical with golden rays of sunshine; together with the expert direction of Stephanie Niland the result was something wonderful.

Speaking of 'Something Wonderful', one of the highlights of the show for me was the spoof of a certain Rodgers and Hammerstein musical which opens the second act: as with everything about this very clever show, it was perfectly judged in this production. Taking ingredients from almost every stage musical of a certain vintage (I shan't bore you by going through them all here dear reader!) to produce a fiendishly clever musical cocktail, 'The Drowsy Chaperone' is a show which deserves to be much more widely performed. 'Cold Feets' skewered the pointless outbreak of gratuitous on-stage tap-dancing (hopefully once and for all) with good humour; 'As We Stumble Along' is a peerless epitome of every Broadway diva's rousing anthem; 'Toledo Surprise' is surely the last word in those 'let's invent a dance craze!' musical numbers; a finale where all ends happily - and in a biplane with a lesbian to boot! Everything about the show is clever, amusing, warm and heartfelt and when given as polished and thoughtful an airing as with this production, unbeatable. With the welcome thread of 'Man in Chair's contributions working through proceedings and the added dimension this brings, here is a musical which rewards frequent revisiting: in short, a masterpiece of musical theatre.

 It's almost impossible to separate the sheer joy of the show itself from this peerless production of it. To single out a particular scene, song, character or moment is also superfluous as it would mean singling out everything and everyone. It's a rare thing to see a pastiche in which the cast don't overdo it; a send-up where the cast don't obviously seem to be enjoying themselves far more than the audience; a show-within-a-show where the production doesn't descend into laughing up its sleeve. This was a thoroughgoing pleasure from start to finish and for an afternoon at the theatre - I attended the matinee - to reap so many rewards was a joy. SMAOS continually produce theatrical entertainment of the highest quality and are to be applauded for their commitment to raising the standards of local amateur theatre. The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed a complete absence of even the mildest criticism in this show report. I would have struggled to find anything to sneer at even if I had decided to pop something in for the sake of it: what I have done however is control my urge to wax lyrical still further, if only to keep the word count to an acceptable level! My sincere thanks go to everyone involved with this production for a wonderfully warm welcome and a fantastic few hours in the theatre.