Tipping The Velvet

Oct 30 2015 | By More

★★★☆☆     Patchwork

Royal Lyceum: Wed 28 Oct – Sat 14 Nov 2015
Review by Hugh Simpson

Great fun, great energy and touching scenes can be found in abundance in Tipping The Velvet at the Lyceum. It is a show of great variety, that does not all come off.

The adaptation of the novel by Sarah Waters comes to the Lyceum in a co-production with the Lyric Hammersmith. It centres on Whitstable oyster-seller Nancy, who falls in love with Kitty, a male impersonator in the music halls, and journeys through the hidden subcultures of Victorian London, dealing with loss and heartbreak.

Sally Messham and Laura Rogers. Photo: Johan Persson

Sally Messham and Laura Rogers. Photo: Johan Persson

Adaptor Laura (Posh) Wade and director Lyndsey Turner are gleefully unafraid of anachronism and happy to tell the story through a variety of devices. Michael Bruce’s music is a definite high point, with the music-hall elements represented by much more modern songs, from Rihanna through Bonnie Tyler to Nick Cave, which generally add a freshness and zing to proceedings.

Sally Messham is extremely impressive as Nancy, convincing at every stage of the character’s journey, and being in control of the smallest elements of the performance – her clownish mime with a jacket is exceptionally good. Kirsty Besterman is frighteningly heartless and dominating as her aristocratic lover Diana, while Adelle Leonce’s Florence has a believably reticent charm. Amanda Hadingue impresses with her presence and versatility in contrasting roles.

Many of the large cast are (like Messham) comparatively professionally inexperienced, but the standard of performance is high, with cameos like Ru Hamilton’s Scottish rent boy making an impact.

However, there are elements of the production that are thrown in seemingly for variety rather than because they belong. Speciality moments, such as an aerial ballet, impress for their cleverness rather than seeming an organic part of the whole.

the staging is fresh and clever

While Laura Rogers’s Kitty is extremely effective in her scenes with Nancy, she does not quite carry off the persona of the magnetic music-hall star. Similarly, not all of the musical numbers convince; the ones that do are those that throw all caution to the wind, such as Smalltown Boy featuring a row of singing animal carcasses. At other times, the panto elements are presented with a vaguely apologetic air, that is fatal to something that demands maximum conviction.

Smalltown Boy - The Tipping the Velvet company. Photo Johan Persson

Smalltown Boy – The Tipping the Velvet company. Photo Johan Persson

That said, most of the staging is fresh and clever. There are, however, serious drawbacks. Any new show clocking in at a whisker under three hours needs a very good reason to do so, and a simple desire to retain as much of the original book as possible will not really suffice. At times the straight retelling of the story becomes something of a chore, as is even acknowledged by the framing figure of the Chairman, a music-hall master of ceremonies who addresses the audience directly.

This character, unfortunately, is the obvious candidate for making the production shorter. His first few moments promise much, stressing the continuity, tradition and appeal of the whole notion of theatrical performance just as cleverly as the use of modern music does.

When he is first used simply to provide an uninspiring recap of what has clearly been shown on stage by an otherwise refreshingly female-dominated ensemble, it seems like a clever and funny riff on the whole idea that so many men feel the need to ‘explain’ what women are saying.

rapidly becomes annoying

However, when this happens again and again, it becomes sadly clear that it is just a clunky, unnecessary narrative device that slows the play down and rapidly becomes annoying. David Cardy starts by throwing himself into the part but he is fighting a losing battle, as his whole role is another symbol of a comparative failure of nerve.

The Tipping the Velvet company. Photo Johan Persson

The Tipping the Velvet company. Photo Johan Persson

This is unfortunate, as so much about the production is funny, charming and engrossing. There are some ‘adult’ scenes and the odd reference that may alarm the more traditional Lyceum-goer, but at heart this is a sweet love story with some clever consciousness-raising.

Despite a couple of references that were obviously designed for London audiences, there is also something rather Scottish about the production, as the use of actor/musicians and the political edge mean that there are obvious echoes of the great agit-prop touring companies.

Being more wholeheartedly in this vein, and losing some of the slower, naturalistic retelling of the novel, would have made for an even better production. As it is, there is a great deal to enjoy as well as some parts that are comparatively infuriating.

Running time 2 hours 55 mins including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Wednesday 28 October to Saturday 14 November 2015
Evenings Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm, Matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm

Tickets from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/tipping-the-velvet

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