The Drowsy Chaperone

Aug 16 2012 | By More

★★★★☆ precise

Paradise in Augustine’s (Venue 152): Mon 13 – Sat 18 Aug 2012
Review by Thom Dibdin

You can almost smell the passion coming off Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s splendid production of The Drowsy Chaperone in the main hall of St Augustine’s.

You can certainly hear it in the singing – and see it in the details of deceptively simple staging of this “musical within a comedy”. But most of all it is there in Andrew Stirling’s performance as the Man in the Chair, alone in his sitting room, listening to an old gramophone record of a 1920s musical.

Andrew Strling (Man in Chair) in the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group's production of the Drowsy Chaperone. Edinburgh Fringe 2012. Photo credit: Eusog

Andrew Strling (Man in Chair). Pic: Eusog

The original cast recording being listened to might be called The Drowsy Chaperone, but Stirling is the audience’s own drowsy chaperone into the world of the musical. He introduces the characters, explains the structure and highlights the stars of the show and their foibles.

As he plays the old recording it comes to life. And Stirling is in complete control of the company as they burst out onto the stage from the surrounding dark. He can pause them to explain what is going to happen next, jump the boring bits and, if he can’t make out a word, lift the needle and repeat – over and over again if necessary.

Eusog have got the high concept down exactly right, with real precision in the timing between Stirling, the on-stage performing company and the orchestra.

More to the point, they get their performance of the invented musical spot on, too. Director Rebecca Clark’s key realisation is that as it is all happening in Stirling’s imagination, she can bring out as much or – as she does – as little scenery as she likes. What is important are the characters and the zany plot, not the actual settings.

heavenly, frothy stuff

This is heavenly, frothy stuff telling a tale of “mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding”, set on the wedding day of sexy Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff (Roz Ford) who plans to give up her life of glamour to tie the knot to mary oil tycoon Robert Martin (Frank Derrington)

Jess Barker (The drowsy chaperone) and Eric Geistfeld (Aldolpho) in the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group's production of the Drowsy Chaperone. Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Jess Barker (The drowsy chaperone) and Eric Geistfeld (Aldolpho). Pic Eusog

It is all happening in the home of old Mrs Tottendale (Caroline Hickling) attended by her servant Underling (Ben Galloway), and fortunately best man George (Ronan Radin) is on hand to make it all run smoothly – or at least that the plot develops in all the outrageous nonsensical ways that it should.

Dead set against the marriage is Luka Bjelis’ Feldzieg, a Broadway producer who is set to lose his leading star, with a couple of gangsters (Tom Collins and Caileen Morison) in attendance to put on the heat. Not that the somewhat dim and squeaky-voiced Kitty (Camilla Parkes playing right up to the role) minds, she has her eye on usurping Janet in the limelight.

Of course the happy couple can’t see each other on their wedding day, so George’s secret weapon to stop anything unfortunate happening is the chaperone (Jess Barker) – somewhat drowsy from an excess of drink.

Feldzieg’s secret weapon is Aldolpho (Eric Geistfeld), a big, sexy, European ladies man, “I’m the king of romance so I kiss a lot”, who Feldzieg sends in to seduce the bride.

playing the archetypes

The extra layer of comedy comes from the Man in the Chair’s explanations of the backgrounds to the performers playing these archetypes. How, as in modern pantomime, the book has been written around what they are known for. Leading man Robert is played by the “dashing Percy Hyman” previously the face of All-bright Toothpaste, so his opening number Cold Feets, opens with him looking in the mirror, a big grin and white teeth blazing.

Roz Ford (Janet Van de Graaf) and Andrew Strling (Man in Chair) in the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group's production of the Drowsy Chaperone. Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Roz Ford (Janet Van de Graaf) and Andrew Strling (Man in Chair). Pic: Eusog

Rebecca Clark’s second great directorial decision is not to play for the laughs. The comedy runs right through every aspect of the show, as it is written, so there is no need to impose it on an audience which is already laughing. She plays with the comedy well enough, but never tries to force it.

And musical director Andrew McDivitt should accept full credit that it is not all comedy. Lovely, lilting duets such as Accident Waiting to Happen fall out with all the sweetness required, although there’s plenty to laugh about in songs such as Toledo Surprise.

There are a few minor quibbles, largely around singers who are operating at the edge – or slightly beyond – their range – while the tap routine isn’t quite up to the exacting standards set by every other aspect of the show. But this is certainly a show which musical fans should be fighting for tickets to see.

Run ends Saturday 18 August 2012
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