The Drowsy Chaperone, Novello Theatre, London

Help, my tongue's stuck in my cheek!
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The Independent Culture

Somebody clearly needs cheering up. The West End's latest musical comedy - a Tony Award-winning hit from Broadway, with Elaine Paige on board - is a lonely saddo's escapist fantasy. The curtain rises on a dust-grey basement bedsit. There are grim security grilles on the windows but a cosy little ol' lamp and record player in one corner. Our cutesy, geeky host, played by the show's co-author, the Canadian comedian Bob Martin, is simply called Man in Chair. A sort of MC/camp narrator, he looks like Danny Kaye in a baggy cardigan, with the neurotic chattiness of Woody Allen.

He says he is suffering a bout of the blues. However, he's an eager-beaver fan of obscure 1920s musicals and he is going to play us one of his favourites, The Drowsy Chaperone which, he would have us believe, once ran at the Novello. Put the needle on the record and, hey presto, his apartment is transformed, Cinderella-like, into a glittery world of satin and sequins, song'n'dance and slapstick.

The place is suddenly crowded with broad stereotypes all involved in a silly wedding-day mix-up. Think ditzy blond chorus girls, a tap-dancing, roller-skating millionaire beau and his glam showgirl bride, plus vaudevillian gangsters disguised as pastry chefs and a ludicrously hammy Latino Lothario.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, this show is technically polished and scattered with jokes. The tap dancing is terrifically natty. Summer Strallen is perfect and stunningly elastic as the high-kicking showgirl. Paige is big voiced and brassy, though not so comically nimble, playing Strallen's cocktail-guzzling chaperone and a limelight-hogging, arm-waving diva. The jazzy numbers, composed by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, can be catchy too.

Nonetheless, the ensemble peppiness and cartoon acting are terribly wearing. Sure, there is a strand of post-modern irony regarding showbiz clichés: god-awful lyrics, risible plot developments and shameless racial caricatures. But the hard truth is that being tongue in cheek doesn't turn crud into gold. Frankly, some of the clowning is so puerile it makes you despair. The mafia chefs' puns ("We hope we've made ourselves perfectly éclair... and there's muffin you can do about it") ought to drive their victims to top themselves without any need for Tommy guns.

The West End, with scarcely any seriously good plays getting aired, does not need more dumbing down. This may be escapist, pure entertainment for Bob Martin but I was often mentally clawing at the walls. KB

To 23 February 2008

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