Tipping The Velvet
On at The Lyric Hammersmith (London) until 24th October
Running time 3 hours (including interval)
Based on the book of the same title by Sarah Waters and adapted for the stage by Laura Wade.
We find ourselves thrown into a distorted Music Hall, the action is led by a male Chairman who welcomes us and acts as a narrator. He guides us through, tells us what to expect next, often at pivotal moments throughout the play, as we follow the story of Nancy Astley; skilfully performed by newcomer Sally Messham, and her journey to discover a place in the world from Whitstable to London as a so-called ‘Tom’. She falls in love with a woman, performs to sold out audiences and gets her heart broken; a ‘coming of age’ story with a twist.
We watch both Kitty (Laura Rogers) and Nancy (Messham) ‘perform’ brilliantly in the Music Hall with classic choreography by Alistair David, teamed with modern pop music geniously mashed together by Michael Bruce featuring songs from Prince to Amy Winehouse.
Many characters pop up along the way, all multi-roled by a highly versatile ensemble. Is there nothing this cast can’t do? Wonderful theatrical moments included use of aerial circus acts, magic, not to mention when the entire cast pull out red ukulele’s and sing ‘These boot’s are made for walking’ during a socialist rally. There is no doubt the creative team were pulling out all the stops.
That said, there was so much variety of visual and musical input that it meant the story was lost at times making the audience work hard to latch on and connect with characters particularly Kitty and Nancy. Their relationship felt tepid which I don’t believe was caused by any lack of talent from either Rogers or Messham, but moments such as the aerial acrobatics between them; used to represent the sex, in hand with the Chairman’s patronising interruptions, were detrimental to the important connection we needed to see. When the relationship breaks down, I feel it should catalyse a reaction so strong that it launches us through each subsequent scene resulting with the all important return of Kitty. However, in this case it felt the stakes were too low, and what should have been a dilemma for Nancy in the last scene, seemed like an obvious choice.
I like the idea to have a male Chairman, judging Nancy of her choices all the way through the piece, patronising the audience and demeaning the characters. I’d love to say sitting through his continual interruptions for three hours was worth it. However it was hard to feel the satisfaction I believe was initially intended when the long awaited nod to this patriarchal character comes in just five minutes before the end (by Nancy, as she asks him to leave the stage). It’s just a bit too little, too late. If the piece was refined only slightly, perhaps cutting the Chairman by half, it would not only slash the running time dramatically without being detrimental to the story arch, but I believe would also keep the audience at tipping point so that the final ‘nod’ comes as a real saving grace.
Special mentions to Adelle Leonce and Amanda Hadingue who multi-role with such skill and truth that we re-engage into this world at moments where excitement lags causing a bit of a lull, which I have to admit weren’t often.
Being part of the LGBT community I was hoping to see something honest, or raw or gritty, that explored characters we don’t often get to see in theatre, something Water’s book does so well and I feel unfortunately the style of this piece ended up diluting the real heart of this story. However there is no denying that ‘Tipping The Velvet’ offered a light hearted evening with a huge variety of entertainment performed by a highly talented cast leaving me humming Prince’s ‘You don’t have to be beautiful’ all the way home.
© K. Winter 2015