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The Theatreguide.London Review

Tipping The Velvet
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre   Autumn 2015

Laura Wade's adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel is witty, inventive, frequently funny, occasionally erotic, and sometimes even touching. 

It is also – and these are nagging flaws rather than serious failings – overlong at nearly three hours, episodic, meandering and occasionally losing its focus, and may leave you with the sense that artistic decisions were made that chose to lose some of the novel's qualities. 

Novel and play are a kind of mock-Tom Jones, tracing the picaresque erotic adventures of a small town Victorian girl in the big bad world. 

Nancy begins with a fan's crush on a music hall performer, girl-in-trousers Kitty, and rapidly becomes her dresser, co-star and – discovering that she feels more than fan adulation – her lover. 

When the honeymoon ends with Nancy abandoned and broken-hearted, she finds her male-impersonator skills an effective entry into the rent boy trade, is taken up and kept by a rich lesbian, and winds up in the unlikely role of a feminist socialist activist with a new and true female lover. 

Taking their cue from the music hall sequences, adapter Wade and director Lyndsey Turner frame the whole story in a music hall performance, with a sardonic Chairman setting the tone, providing commentary and narrative links and generally controlling both the action and the play's attitude toward it. 

Individual scenes thus have a double reality, as actual events and as music hall turns and sketches, and the whole is punctuated frequently with the characters breaking reality to burst into song. 

In the published text Laura Wade merely indicates where the songs should come and allows future directors to choose what they want. Here she and Lyndsey Turner add an additional layer of humour by choosing modern pop songs re-arranged to have a music hall sound so that, for example, Nancy's debut as a feminist speechmaker flows smoothly into a version of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking'. 

Elsewhere, the production is openly eclectic and magpie-like, and you may notice borrowings from The Music Man and from one of Kneehigh Theatre's favourite tropes, the use of acrobatic flying to represent sexual ecstasy. 

It is all a lot of fun. The music hall frame provides a backbone for a plot that does sometimes wander around or leap blithely over narrative gaps, and effectively guarantees that the overall tone is light even in Nancy's darker moments. 

The musical jokes all work, and the peeps into different levels of the Victorian lesbian world are both fascinating and titillating. If something is lost, or at least underplayed, in the translation it is a sense of the depth of Nancy's feelings and the serious side of her emotional journey. 

The performances are uneven. David Cardy perfectly captures the Chairman's high energy and sardonic irony, and adroitly carries much of the weight of sustaining both the story and the tone. 

But newcomer Sally Messham is a little too much of a blank as Nancy, doing what is asked of her but constantly threatening to disappear into the crowd, and bringing too little sense of the character's interior life or her growth in the course of the play.

Laura Rogers is convincingly sexy and magnetic as Kitty, but is written out of the story early, while Kirsty Besterman is around too briefly as the rich lesbian to do more than sketch in a cartoon character and Adelle Leonce as Nancy's last love must play a character written to be colourlessly nice. 

Tipping The Velvet moves to Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre after a season at the Lyric. It could profitably lose a half-hour somewhere in the journey, and some of the performances may get sharper and deeper. 

But even as it stands now, its inventiveness and high spirits entertainingly carry it over the occasional rough patch.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review - Tipping The Velvet - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2015

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