Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Matthew White and Howard Jacques
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
From 13 December 2017 to 28 January 2018
Review by Howard Loxton
The film of Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, was shot and released in 1935 but it was not until 2011 that a stage adaptation was mounted, touring before coming into the West End. This is its first other production and Ovation and its north London fringe theatre takes on quite a challenge with an Irving Berlin musical that was a spectacular Hollywood success for its iconic stars.
Director John Plews and his designer Emily Bestow find ways of presenting multiple settings and rapid scene changes in a fast-moving production with an art deco look and some fantastic frocks but, rather than compete with Hollywood production values, it delivers a much more immediate excitement in the intimacy of its performance.
Staged in traverse with audience on two sides, it's a dazzling display of fast footwork, flashing feet in high kicks, spinning bodies, somersaults and leaps almost in the audience’s laps, demanding a precision of placing that is breathtakingly daring. It is true that choreography often makes such demands but audiences are more used to watching at a distance, not within inches of injury. I could hear the fellow next to me gasp in amazement (and he wasn’t the only one). It is easy for regulars at this venue, the Union and other such intimate venue musicals to take all this for granted but it does generate added excitement.
Top Hat is a tale of an American dancer brought to London to star in his own show and an attractive young model who mistakes his identity. Joshua Lay plays dancer Jerry Travers, whose feet don’t seem able to stay still. He taps a disturbance through a staid London club and ruins the sleep of the girl in the hotel room below him who turns out to be the girl of his dreams—Joanne Clifton as Dale Tremont—so he spreads sand on the floor and changes to soft shoe.
It is not the most plausible plot line but this is a kooky comedy. That's why, while the romantic pair and Dales’ friend Madge Hardwick (Ellen Verenieks) play straight, there’s a tongue-in-cheek edge of caricature to Madge’s husband, posh English businessman Horace (Darren Benedict), his valet (Samuel Haughton) and an Italian couturier (Matthew James Willis) that matches the show’s theatricality and may be the only way to make the valet’s outrageous disguises and the plot’s machinations acceptable.
As Jerry fills Dale’s room with flowers and flies off to Venice after his first night to pursue her, the score gives us some favourite Berlin songs, including “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and the company sing and dance up a storm with Chris Whittaker's choreography. It’s a strong team playing multiple roles: Leanne Groutage, Olivia Sinclair, Grace Usher, Rhys Ashcroft, Grant Jackson and Marcus J Foreman whose grin and acrobatics grab extra attention. There’s a great band too.
This is light-hearted Christmas escapism delivered with energy. Does it sound like your holiday outing?