Review: The Drowsy Chaperone/Acts of Deceit ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone/Acts of Deceit

It's Australia Day today. As our national day of celebration, it acts as a post for all sorts of flags. Once, in more innocent times - or at least, in the days when White Australia was a harmless nationalistic masthead that merely signified cutting off the pigtails of Chinese goldminers - it meant the Land of the Long Weekend was nearing the end of its summer hols. The Australian Worker returned to his factory in the worker's paradise, there to cock his snook in a suitably larrikin fashion at the Boss, while stealing his copper piping.

Then our Indigenous people were given the vote, and we found that a sizeable slice of the Australian population thought that Captain Arthur Phillip's arrival at Botany Bay marked a day of calamity. In response to this and other kinds of thoughtfulness, Australia Day has become an occasion for bashing Indian students, dubious dress-sense and general boganoogery, which itself prompts a wave of horror from the anti-thug brigade in the national press.

I'm not sure that Australia is more racist than it has been. A certain zombie element is certainly expressing its racism in worse taste and with more confidence, and - seizing the commercial opportunity - supermarkets, insurance salesmen and furniture barns are cashing in on the patriotic ka-ching. Luckily, that's not all of Australia. It's certainly not the Australia I know. As a proud, card-carrying "arts extremist" and, well, ordinary urban citizen, I can testify to the tolerance, intelligence, ingenuity, passionate thoughtfulness and, yes, decency (George Orwell valued decency highly, and so do I) of the Australia I inhabit.

Phew. Just had to get that off my chest. Now from the editorial to the reviews: which will, I fear, be brief. Today is somewhat crowded. and I am working against other deadlines at present which limit my time.

The splashy opening of last week was, of course, the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of the Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. If anything expresses Australian colonialism, it's a willingness to take the cultural lead from the traditional Anglo centres of culture, Britain and the US; in theatre's case, Broadway and the West End. However, the paradox of colonialism - as cricket and soccer demonstrate so well - is that the damn colonials end up doing the mother country's culture better than the mother country itself: and Simon Phillips's production here is a case in point.

The Drowsy Chaperone might usher in a subtext of nostalgia for the days when we - meaning white, middle class audiences - could comfortably laugh at wops and dagoes with funny accents. And it unashamedly claims that theatre is about entertainment and escapism, and nothing else. (It's actually the "nothing else" clause that I object to - I know very few extremist arts elitists who aren't up for popcorn). But its ironic self-commentary means that it has its cake and eats it too.

Disliking The Drowsy Chaperone would be like disliking kittens: pointless and somehow inhuman. This is a preposterous cocktail of a show, delivered with just enough lemon to cut against the syrup, and Phillips has given it a superb production. It plays homage to the golden age of musicals, when life was grand (if you were rich enough): it evokes 1920s Broadway, when Dorothy Parker was sharpening her pen at the Algonquin Round Table, Gershwin and Cole Porter were shaping the tunes and the Great White Way was paved with rhinestones and sequins.

What makes it more than merely an exercise in nostalgia is its simple but ingenious framing. When the lights go down at the start, they stay down: we sit in the anxious darkness that precedes every show, and Geoffrey Rush’s voice, refracted through a New York accent, floats across the auditorium. "I hate theatre," he says. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" And he tells us the prayer he delivers before every show: that it will be fun, that it will be short, that the actors will strictly observe the fourth wall and stay out of the audience, and that it will deliver an escape from the mundane travails of ordinary life.

The light lifts on a small, unimpressive apartment to reveal Rush, whose character doesn’t even have a name – he is simply the Man in the Chair. He is a musical theatre geek – for him, Elton John is a decadent shadow of Gershwin, and Cameron Mackintosh’s spectaculars are an unspeakable vulgarity. The Man has the blues, or at least an ill-defined anxiety he calls the blues, and to combat his melancholy, he proposes to share one of his favourite albums – a 1928 cast recording of a chestnut called The Drowsy Chaperone. He fussily puts it on the turntable and the overture begins.

And suddenly the blinds lift on his windows to reveal a real band playing outside. The walls ascend to reveal another, more glamorous world, the characters enter one by one, and the musical comes to life in his apartment. The musical itself is a ludicrous parody, performed by an outstanding cast with a brio that lifts it beyond its undistinguished score. It’s wittily annotated throughout by the lugubrious Man in the Chair, with occasional unwelcome interruptions from the “real” life he wishes so desperately to escape.

As well as theatrical stars like Rush, Richard Piper and Robyn Nevin (whose technical control is, in case we've forgotten, superb), Phillips has cast from experienced music theatre stagers, with a lineup that includes Adam Murphy, Shane Jacobsen, Rhonda Burchmore. And it's the cast - which has depth as well as breadth - that makes this show. Choroegrapher Andrew Hallsworth has put together some ripping dance routines - I'd forgotten, for example, how sheerly pleasurable it can be to watch a great tap duet. It all generates pure comic showbiz, with a sparkle heightened by Dale Ferguson’s ingenious set and spectacular costumes. A sure-fire crowd pleaser.

At the other end of the scale is Gary Abraham's Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room). At La Mama's Courthouse Theatre as part of the Midsumma Festival, this shows Melbourne's indie scene at its considerable best. It's loosely based on James Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which explored the alienation of a young, gay American man in 1950s Paris, his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with his ideals of manhood, and the catastrophic consequences. It is, in fact, the kind of thing that in lesser hands could be teeth-achingly pretentious. When delivered with the skill and passion you get here, what occurs is gut-wrenching, compelling theatre.

David (Jay Bowen) is waiting in Paris for his would-be fiancee Hella (Joanne Trentini), who is travelling Spain as she decides whether to marry him. While she's away, he meets a young West African barman, Ku-Jean (Terry Yeboah), and begins a passionate affair. His deceptions of his lover, his fiancee, his gay friend Jacques (Dion Mills) and a young woman whom he sexually exploits (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) begins, of course, with his self-deception.

The major change in Abrahams' sensitive adaptation of Baldwin's novel is to transform the race of David's lover from Italian to West African. It's appropriate: as a black, gay man, Baldwin was himself one of the most insightful commentators on race relations in post-war literature; it also introduces a subtext about illegal immigrants that gives the text a contemporary spin. Also impressive is how the text wears its intelligence lightly, echoing Baldwin's literary sophistication without weighing down the play's dramatic force.

Perhaps what I most admired about this show - besides the passionate and, above all, accurate performances, which are truly extraordinary - is the delicacy and honesty with which the production explores a complex emotional and moral situation, eschewing judgment for insight. The design team - lighting, sound and set - use simple strokes to effectively evoke the glamorous squalor of jazz-era Paris. But don't take my word for it. Go see it for yourself.

Picture: The Australia I adore: Melbourne cafes.

Shorter versions of these reviews appear in the Australian.

The Drowsy Chaperone, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. January 21. Until February 27. Tickets: $115. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room), directed and written by Gary Abrahams, from a novel by James Baldwin. Sets and costumes by Kat Chan, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Jim Westlake, music composition by Lachlan Tan and Geoff Chan. With Jay Bowen, Terry Yeboah, Dion Mills and Zoe Ellerton-Ashley. Dirty Theatre and La Mama Theatre, 2010 Midsumma Festival. Courthouse Theatre. January 22. Until February 7. Bookings: (03) 9347 6142. Tickets: $25.


Borbs said...

Hmmm. Saw DS Friday night and left disappointed. You cannot do justice to a Broadway homage/parody with only three people who can actually sing (not that I understood a word that Rhonda Burchmore was singing). And what was so incredible about Robyn Nevin's performance? The inability to use an American accent, the total of 2 minutes that she spent on stage or the technical control of the singing voice that she doesn't have?? Rush was great, but you can pull off a one man show like 'Exit the King' relying on the powers of a strong lead actor, but this was an ensemble piece ... three stars at best :(

Alison Croggon said...

A response! Yay! Opening night I had no trouble understanding any of the lyrics, except on a couple of brief occasions when the mic fucked up for one unfortunate singer. I don't usually mention minor sound troubles because it's a tech thing that probably won't happen again... hopefully. (Discussions on the usage of mics welcome). Certainly, the night I went, Nevin's accent was the most pitch perfect of everyone's on stage, including Rush.

Sometimes later comments on MTC shows make me feel that I saw another show, even given the truism that different nights in the theatre can create very different experiences. If I could, I would prefer to review later shows. Things ramp up for opening nights there and sometimes ramp down afterwards. Or so it seems.