Tipping The Velvet

Sarah Waters, adapted by Laura Wade
Lyceum Theatre Company and Lyric Hammersmith
Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Sally Messham as Nancy and Laura Rogers as Kitty Credit: Johan Persson
Kirsty Besterman as Diana Credit: Johan Persson

Sarah Waters's novel of the ups and downs of Nancy Astley has been transformed into a fantastic rollercoaster ride by writer Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner. The production is firmly rooted in the traditions of the music hall that plays such a central role to the plot.

The play packs in all the emotion of the novel and then, through some wonderfully creative ideas, moves you even more. I was totally drained by the end having oscillated many times between tears and laughter.

The action is narrated by the Chairman (David Cardy), a master of ceremonies who keeps the show moving along at a terrific pace with his gavel bashing down to cut to the next scene.

The play creates the feel of the music hall, not by trying to rigidly recreate the Victorian theatre, but by trying to allow us to feel how an audience back then would have felt, with classic songs from more recent years and jokes by the Chairman that dig fun at contemporary life.

The Lyceum, with its ornate interior, is the perfect setting for the show and there is even a short celebration of the Lyceum and the changing face of British drama to begin the play.

Nancy (Sally Messham), an oyster girl from Whitstable, becomes enamoured with the music hall act of male impersonator Kitty (Laura Rogers) and ends up becoming her dresser.

Kitty's success takes them to London, where they share a bed in a lodging house and eventually make love, in one of the most beautiful stage sex scenes ever. The two actors show amazing prowess entwined erotically on aerial silks.

The play though is packed full of great scenes of visual flair and often acutely comic too, from musical glory holes to an abattoir of singing dead pigs. True to the spirit of the music hall if not the reality.

The live band accompanying in a music hall style, tunes such as "I Just Want To Make Love To You" and "These Boots Were Made For Walking" adds to the effect too. One of the funniest is the drinking song sung while Nancy seduces Blake (Sarah Vezmar).

The play manages to be very funny but without undermining the more serious episodes. This is down to the fantastic cast who are able to switch between the musical hall send-ups and the more naturalistic scenes.

Messham's performance as Nancy gives the piece a real heart. Her character manages to be both funnier and more sympathetic than in Waters's novel. The transformations the character goes through are just magical to watch.

There are great turns too from Kirsty Besterman as Diana, Ru Hamilton as Sweet Alice and Amanda Hadingue as innumerable characters. The cast all proved their versatility playing many different choruses, a really strong ensemble piece.

The finale with Ralph (Andy Rush) being helped by Nancy to deliver his speech on women and Nancy taking on the Chairman gave the play a powerful and very moving ending.

Without doubt the best piece of theatre I have seen all year, I'll most certainly be returning to the Lyceum to see it again.

Reviewer: Seth Ewin

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