The Drowsy Chaperone, Milborne Port Opera

IT’S 34 years since the fledgling Milborne Port Opera took to the village hall stage to perform Trial by Jury, and since then dozens of singing actors, acting singers and dancers have got together around Easter to put on a show. The company’s reputation has grown, the repertoire become more varied, and, from the original “always Gilbert and Sullivan,” directors have gone on to embark on ever more challenging shows.

This year’s is the American spoof The Drowsy Chaperone, which retains its throwing-caution- to-the-winds fringe bravado. In fact, it started life in Canada as an improvised sketch for a wedding stag party … in which the participants were brought together by work in musical theatre. Radically revised, it made its way to the professional stage, where it was lauded by American critics and adored by audiences. It didn’t travel quite so comfortably to London, where the opening run was terminated long before its planned finish. So now it has become a bit of a cult, and rightly so.

When Karen Pankhurst, MPO director, came across the show, she was immediately captivated. Musical director Caroline D’Cruz was similarly entranced by the jazzy music. The decision was made and all that was needed was a cast – and a technical crew capable of transforming the village hall stage from a seedy city flat into a set fit for a Busby Berkley-style 1920s musical, complete with a full-size bi-plane and a flight high in the sky to Rio. And some clever glitchy bits with styluses, LPs, telephones and blackouts.

Happily for the packed audience at Milborne Port, everyone was more than up to the challenge, and a delightfully stylish production of this quirky and addictive musical is available for all to see.

A grumpy man sits alone in his flat, surrounded by records of famous musicals and hiding from external intrusion by never answering his phone. He is simply known as Man in Chair, and the little we learn about him comes in moments of self-questioning. What he DOES know is that he wants to play his favourite record, a 1920s musical called The Drowsy Chaperone, performed by the stars of the day and featuring all the vital tropes of the early musicals. And he wants to share it with the audience.

Gradually, the stage fills with (caricatured) characters – the elderly dowager and her faithful butler (called Underling!), the ingenue and her wealthy boyfriend, the director and his ditzy starlet, the Latin Lover, the dependable gopher … and in this case, the older actress in the overwhelming role of the Drowsy (aka tipsy) Chaperone. It is the wedding day, and everyone has a hidden agenda. Can the bride and groom be kept traditionally apart, will the gangsters (disguised as pastry chefs!) stop the ceremony, will the starlet discover the glimmer of a brain?

This enchanting show is glitteringly performed by Jessie Stones and Oscar Shave-Smythies as the happy couple, Alison Ruddy and James Craw as Mrs Tottendale and Underling, Sukie Read in the title role, Richard Gaunt as Feldzeig and Esmee Roach as the hilarious Kitty, Rachel Milestone McAdorey as George the Best Woman, Alison Gosney as Trix, all the gangster/pastry cooks and many more. Then there is Matthew Baker as Aldolpho the Lover, burning up the stage and eating the scenery and heading for a comedy award for sure. And Lloyd Davies as the self-effacing Man in Chair, weaving in and out of the action and revealing unsuspected aspects of his personality throughout the show.

The band members are clearly enjoying every moment of the razzmatazz and schmaltz, and the technical crew deserve their own award. It’s a great show – and a perfect endorsement of MPO’s policy of risk taking. Thanks to everyone for a hugely enjoyable show.

Again the question will be asked: “Why don’t more companies do this?”


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