Top Hat

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin based on RKO’s motion picture, adapted for the stage by Matthew White and Howard Jacques
Sunderland Empire

Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch
Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch
Sebastien Torkia and Charlotte Gooch
John Conroy and Clive Hayward
Alan Burkitt

Astaire lives and he’s touring the UK in Top Hat.

Actually Alan Burkitt, who plays Jerry Travers, is (I think) taller than Astaire and (dare I say it?) is a better singer, but he has the great man’s mannerisms to a T and he’s a pretty damned good dancer, too. As is Charlotte Gooch who plays the Ginger Rogers part, Dale Tremont, and together they make a formidable leading pair in a show which is full of good things.

It’s not a simple staging of the RKO film—although it does have the same paper-thin plot based around that hoary old standard, mistaken identity—for the film had only five dance numbers and this has fifteen, taken from other Berlin shows, including "Puttin’ on the Ritz" and "Let’s Face the Music and Dance" which, at this performance, was underscored by a substantial proportion of the audience joining in quietly!

Mind you, this production gets as close to being cinematic as a stage show can be: an incredibly flexible art deco set (by Hildegard Bechtler, who has been producing impressive designs for the West End for many years now) enables the action to segue from exterior to hotel room to stage to park, and from New York to London to Venice (taking in an aircraft interior on the way) with ease—not quite the cross-fades or cuts that film can do, but very close.

There are some delightful design moments, as when Burkitt dances in his hotel room and we see, at the same time, Gooch in bed in the suite below becoming increasingly annoyed by the noise from the room above as a shadowed figure—the very image of Burkitt and in perfect synch—dances above her.

And there’s the costume design moment (designer Jon Morrell) during "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" when feathers flutter from Gooch’s white dress, recalling the story of the problems that dress caused for Astaire during filming.

But it’s the song and dance which the Top Hat audiences go to see and there’s almost a surfeit of good things in this production. Bill Deamer’s choreography is pure thirties, from the mass tap numbers through ballroom sequences to the iconic duets.

The storyline, although as light as the feathers from that white dress, has romance and humour, funny characters (Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini, played by Sebastien Torkia, and the lugubrious butler Bates, played by John Conroy) and even (literally) knockabout comedy involving the rich married couple Horace and Madge Hardwick (Clive Hayward and Rebecca Thornhill) but the dance and the music are what you remember.

The packed audience certainly did as many were singing those well-loved standards as they left the theatre and even in the car park while waiting in the long queues at the ticket machine.

Yes, it’s totally undemanding froth but is so well done in every way that you cannot help but come out with a spring in your step and a smile on your face. There’s been a real run of superbly performed feel-good shows at the Empire in recent weeks. Long may it continue!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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