02 February 2013

Top Hat - Aldwych Theatre, Wednesday 30th January 2013

An American dancer, Jerry Travers, comes to London to star in a show produced by the bumbling Horace Hardwick. While practicing a tap dance routine in his hotel bedroom, he awakens Dale Tremont on the floor below. She storms upstairs to complain, whereupon Jerry falls hopelessly in love with her and proceeds to pursue her all over London.

Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, who is married to her friend Madge. Following the success of Jerry's opening night in London, Jerry follows Dale to Venice, where she is visiting Madge and modelling/promoting the gowns created by Alberto Beddini, a dandified Italian fashion designer with a penchant for malapropisms.

Jerry proposes to Dale, who, while still believing that Jerry is Horace, is disgusted that her friend's husband could behave in such a manner and agrees instead to marry Alberto. Fortunately, Bates, Horace's meddling English valet, disguises himself as a priest and conducts the ceremony; apparently, Horace had sent Bates to keep tabs on Dale.

On a trip in a gondola, Jerry manages to convince Dale and they return to the hotel where the previous confusion is rapidly cleared up. The reconciled couple dance off into the Venetian sunset.

Jerry Travers: Tom Chambers
Dale Tremont: Charlotte Gooch
Horace Hardwick: Martin Ball
Madge Hardwick: Vivien Parry
Alberto Beddini : Ricardo Afonso
Bates: Stephen Boswell

Creative Team:
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
Adaptation: Matthew White and Howard Jacques
Director: Matthew White
Choreography: Bill Deamer
Set: Hildegard Bechtler
Costumes: Jon Morrell
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Hair and wigs: Campbell Young

If you want depth, go elsewhere, because this musical makes a puddle look deep. If you want a paper-thin “plot”, a few good laughs, great costumes, chorus members giving it so much welly during a tap routine that they make the stage quake and some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment, put on your Top Hat and shuffle on down to the Aldwych. Pinter it ain’t, but when the skies are dark and cold, the country is fucked and the spectre of ruin looms, you can forget your troubles for a couple of hours and smile – as long as you don’t mind sharing the auditorium with hordes of grey haired oldies up from some god-forsaken outpost of Empire on a coach trip. Doris, Hilda, Stan, Ruby and Doug are likely to be your companions for the evening, and they will probably have brought their tea with them wrapped in bits of tin foil and located right at the bottom of a capacious plastic bag, underneath fold-up umbrella, spare cardie (in case), paper bag of postcards, hair spray (in case of wind) and spare TennaPants for Stan (well, you know what happened last time; I’ll never be able to look Hilary Gossington in the face again). They will have had an afternoon’s shopping in Oxford Street (all of which they will have brought with them to the theatre because the coachdriver looked a bit shifty, if you ask me) and they will consume their food with gusto (but generally before the curtain goes up) and they won’t have a mobile phone to bother you with during the quiet bits. They will have stopped short of bringing a portable gas stove and a camping kettle, but they will have purchased a six-pack of small cartons of juice which they will slurp with great relish – and if last night’s lot are anything to go by, Muller Fruit Corners will be consumed in the interval and they will suck humbugs loudly through the second half. They will stick their head into the orchestra pit to count the musicians and exchange witty banter with the conductor. They will in all likelihood hum along to all the choonz (and possibly sing along), and they will certainly jiggle their leg up and down in time to the rhythm. At various points in the action, one of them will forget they are not sitting in their comfy chair at home in front of the TV and say (loudly) “Ooooooh, aint that a lovely dress?” They will laugh at all the jokes, however thin or non-PC, they will clap all the dance numbers and then they will all pile on the coach home afterwards and agree that it was “smashing”.

And, in the main, they would be right. They would have had seen a well staged, completely escapist show of the kind that always pops up in abundance when times are hard. Top Hat is good fun. Even this old cynic enjoyed it (even though wild horses would probably have to drag the admission out of me). Sure, I could carp about some bits, but then when have you read one of my reviews when I haven’t?
Mr Chambers (who will be on the point of leaving the show for a damned good sit down by the time you read this and I don’t blame him because just watching him made my feet ache) is the modern equivalent of Fred Astaire – quite bland and unassuming but with a certain debonair panache that allows him to get away with quite a lot. He can hoof it really well, but his flaws are exposed to a certain extent when surrounded by people who have been doing the Time Step since they were in nappies. You can tell that he’s a relative newcomer to dancing. There’s something indefinable missing, and I think its called “years of experience”. He is most certainly outdanced by Charlotte Gooch, who is the embodiment of the phrase “legs that go all the way up to her tits”. Neither, quite honestly, can he act terribly well. Oh, he’s OK in this role, but it doesn’t demand an awful lot of psychological depth. I don’t think he would cope very well with Shakespeare. And he has a terrible tendency to deliver some of his lines almost direct to the audience as if in panto, and there is an occasional rictus grin rather than a natural smile. Mind you, if he’s been doing 8 shows a week for the last 18 months I’m amazed he can still stand up, let alone dance. My little trotters would be down to nubbins by now. Neither, to be frank, has he got a great singing voice. But he looks the part, can put across a song, and hoofs it with style and conviction, which is basically all that the role requires.
Charlotte Gooch manages “the triple threat” of dancing like a goddess, acting a stupid, bland role really well and singing like a dream. Did I mention that she has fantastic legs that go all the way up to her shoulders? She must be a costume designer’s wet dream.
Gooch and Chambers are given sterling support by Vivien Parry, Mermanising and delivering wisecracks with the timing of a Swiss watch. Stephen Boswell does a truly memorable job with the role of Bates, the hyper-efficient valet, and Ricardo Afonso almost, almost walks away with the entire show clutched between his shapely thighs in the “comedy foreigner” role of Beddini, a part which seems thankless in the first act but dominates the second, pushing Chambers very much into the background. The chorus hoof away from the word “go”, working as a great team and tapdancing with such gusto that bats practically fall out of the roof.
Costumes are, as Craig Revel-Horwood would say, “FAB-U-LUS”, displaying the height of the costume designer’s art, recalling the sheer glamour of the age of Fortuny and Schiaparelli. Period lines, styles, details and cuts are all correct – and what’s more, they’re all beautiful to look at, even when worn by “the fuller figures” on stage. Ms. Gooch (did I mention that she has legs that go all the way up to her teeth?) looks like she has just stepped out of an issue of Vogue, circa 1936 in a number of beautiful creations. I will nitpick that men in the late 1930s would have worn long socks rather than the little ankle-jobbies some of the principals are sporting and I will also nitpick that the bloody suitcases were empty again!
It’s a good, old fashioned, entertaining night out. You can take Granny to see it and she will have a ball. Your parents will like it – your mum probably loves Tom Chambers anyway and your dad will enjoy looking at Ms. Gooch’s fantastic pins which go all the way up to her ears. Doris, Hilda, Stan, Ruby and Doug haven’t had such a good time in years, (Stan didn’t need the TennaPants, btw) and will reminisce all the way home about the times when all West End shows had a chorus of 24 tapdancers dressed in top hat and tails (that production of King Lear must have been a riot) and whacked the stage to buggery with their canes. Who knows, secretly, under that gruff exterior, you might love it too. Don’t expect depth, a decent plot or subtle humour and you won’t be disappointed. It could run for years – but only as long as the chorus’s feet hold out – or until all that dancing scrapes a hole through the stage and everyone falls into the orchestra pit.




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