Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: The Drowsy Chaperone

God I hate theatre. I really do. This isn’t some exaggerated lead-in to a joke but a simple statement of fact. I don’t go to theatre and comedy and circus and everything else out of an undiscriminating love of live performance. I don’t go out of a sense of duty, either, believing that theatre is in some way worthy or important. I think most theatre is unimportant, and self-indulgent without being self-aware, and disposable and tiring and futile. This is why I go to about 200 productions a year. Not out of unbridled enthusiasm but out of spite.

It may sound like a strange admission but I think it’s a healthy approach. It means I enter a theatre with one thought in my head: surprise me. Give me anything at all that won’t confirm my worst fears. Show me why people love theatre and prove that they’re not just weird freaks missing out on life.
It was encouraging, then, to hear the opening lines of MTC’s The Drowsy Chaperone as they rang out in a darkened Playhouse: “I hate theatre. It's so disappointing, isn't it?”

These words are spoken by a man known only as the Man in the Chair, a title I will abbreviate to MitCh since I am not paid by the word. MitCh does go by another name, I suppose, and that name is Geoffrey Rush, but that’s only because Rush deservedly dominates the Melbourne production and it’s not easy to think of another actor who could bring the same presence to the show. Not that Rush is so stratospherically superior in the role (he’s very good, sure). It’s that the role itself could be overwhelmed by the hullabaloo that quickly comes to surround it, and it takes someone of Rush’s stature (ie. he does HOLLYWOOD MOVIES) to match that excess.

MitCh sits in his obsessively ordered New York apartment and plays for us his treasured vinyl recording of a forgotten 1920s musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. He talks us through it, guiding our understanding and interpretation. As he does so the musical itself is brought to life in his flat, whose walls and furniture prove prone to sudden transformation in the service of a good ol’ timey song and dance.

The musical is dreadful. MitCh freely admits this. But it also has enough of interest to explain his manic compulsion to return to it constantly. Its flaws – the foibles of the original performers as they affect their characterisation, or the cheap gags that appear ludicrously dated, and even the scratches which now cause the old record to occasionally jump – become in MitCh’s eyes things to be doted on, causes for which he is the world’s only champion. His affection for this tacky show is something approaching a pure and unrequited love.
But what kind of sorry loser saves the most private corner of their heart for a musical?

What I like most about The Drowsy Chaperone is the way it gently indicts its own audience. If we find any entertainment in the show – and you’d have to put in a bit of effort not to – then The Man in the Chair is us. On a basic level this means we’re in the same camp as someone who’ll overlook a bit of casual racism, laugh off dusty gender stereotypes and, worst of all, tolerate terrible artistry (MitCh apologises at length for the awful lyrics of one number, Monkey on a Pedestal, although I thought it was pretty passable).

But on a deeper level, MitCh is a very damaged soul. The details of his personal history occasionally seep into his commentary and various characters clearly occupy extra-curricular roles in his psyche (the Chaperone as his mother, for instance). This guy is a very lonely man, filling his cramped home with the spectacle of a musical but unable to admit anything of the real world past his front door.

MitCh’s love of a musical is a substitution for emotional engagement with anything else. He’s retreated from life into entertainment, and despite his damning of theatre it turns out that his entire life is just that. All of this is admirably understated, and The Drowsy Chaperone is all the stronger for the way it can be enjoyed in an unironic way.

Playhouse, the Arts Centre, until 27 Feb.

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