mon 22/01/2018

Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre

Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre

Even when money's tight, isn't it a lovely day to be caught in an Irving Berlin musical?

Faithful to the movie: Tom Chambers leads the Top Hat ensembleImages © Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

David Cameron could hardly wish for a more apt musical to pep up the people’s spirits than Irving Berlin’s Top Hat, with its wheedling entreaties about the advantages of being caught in the rain, or putting on your best front, and all. Matthew White’s staging of Top Hat - said to be the first-ever theatrical version of the immortal 1935 Astaire and Rogers movie - is finely timed for a grim (and rainy) summer, with a smart and spirited production that pretty much puts the film on stage, making the best of what look like austerity budgets. If you manage to quell the thought that a Fred 'n' Ginger movie without insouciant luxury is something of an oxymoron, you'll find it nicely takes your mind off the euro crisis.

Created in another austerity period, the story is packed with farcical devices that wouldn’t look out of place in Shakespeare or Mozart - mistaken identities that spin out the romantic tension between the young leads, a cracklingly combative parallel from an older couple, and some amusing character roles for superannuated males who are either comically deluded or ingenious fixers.

Top Hat tom chambers act 1Jerry Travers is a star actor from Broadway about to open in London (Tom Chambers pictured right). Staying at his bumbling producer’s house, he accidentally makes acquaintance with a ravishing blonde in the suite below who’s kept awake by his dancing practice. It emerges, in convoluted and amusingly predictive fashion, that the producer’s dragon wife, currently travelling, has a young friend whom she proposes to matchmake with Jerry. Since nobody introduces themselves - the opportunity never quite comes up properly - before long the four have chased all the romantic possibilities into a pleasingly unravellable ball of misunderstandings, to the point where a marriage is being arranged for said blonde Dale Tremont in a hotel lobby at midnight to a combustible and almost certainly gay Italian fashion designer, in the fond belief that this will solve everything.

Cheerfully unconscious of anything as depressing as a depression, the script sparkles with conspicuous consumption. Absent-minded producer Horace Hardwick happily forks out to fly himself and Travers seven hours to Venice from London for a mere weekend between shows in order to join a quick Piccolino on the Lido, while Madge, his wife, spends so much that Hardwick is delighted when her cheque book is stolen. Travers contentedly sponges off Hardwick, while Dale Tremont appears to be entirely funded by her dress designer.

The slickness of the plotting is not surprising, coming as it does from the lively era of RKO’s greatest Astaire-Rogers pictures. The language, picked off Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott’s original movie script, is fast and sarcastic: Hardwick sighs that until a man is married he isn’t complete - after that he’s finished. In another blissful one-two,Travers queries why Tremont prefers to take a hansom cab rather than a motorcar - She: “The horse is coming back.” He: “Where’s he been?”

Such standards are obligatory when the immortal Irving Berlin is i/c songs, whose tunes and lyrics move with the charm and effervescence of Mr Astaire’s feet, or perhaps a da Ponte-Mozart comedy of love. This show's overture is profligate with deathless songs: “Cheek to Cheek”, “Isn’t it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain?”, “Let’s Face the Music” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. (See Fred Astaire's original version below)



There are reasons why the miraculous Astaire version of the above number isn’t reproduced in all its glory in this staging (not least the sequence where he cheerfully shoots his friends down one by one), but choreographer Bill Deamer ensures that a dozen tapping chaps in top hats, tails and canes is still good to see, spatted feet clattering as expertly as castanets.

 

They help to distract. When it comes down to brass tacks, Tom Chambers, a popular performer from TV’s Holby City as well as 2008 winner of Strictly Come Dancing, can't sing (his voice is more of a honk), hoofs with zeal but not refinement, and seduces with all the sexual charisma of an insurance salesman one policy short of making his bonus.

Top Hat summer strallen, tom chambersMuch better is his leading lady Summer Strallen, a perfectly honed Thirties-type blonde of pliable body and poised wits, who looks fabulous in jodhpurs and glorious in a reproduction of Ginger Rogers’s famous feathered gown (the couple pictured left). She sings quite well and dances with a nicely judged counterpoint of assertive high-kicking body momentum and soft, charming, cat’s-paw arms.

Possibly even more the scene-stealer is Ricardo Afonso as the Malapropist Italian designer Alberto Beddini ("It's like looking for a noodle in a haystack," he fulminates memorably), but Martin Ball also does an attractive tribute act to the iconic Edward Everett Horton as the affably idiotic Horace Hardwick.

Production values are economical - top-calibre collaborators such as set designer Hildegard Bechtler, costume designer Jon Morrell and lighting man Peter Mumford turn the Aldwych’s tiny stage as best they can into Poirot-esque locations in New York, London and Venice (you notice the same slabs of scenery doubling and trebling their functions).

The 14-piece orchestra show equal low-carb resourcefulness, fielding everything from orchestral strings to jazz clarinets and guitars in Chris Walker’s nifty musical arrangements. Numbers from other Berlin musicals, Follow the Fleet, Holiday Inn, Louisiana Purchase, are added to the five famous Top Hat songs, filling out character opportunities and concocting a smart response by Dale to Jerry’s long-delayed proposal of marriage: “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket,” she replies, glancing at someone else. It's a lovely time to be caught in an Irving Berlin musical.

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Berlin's tunes and lyrics move with the charm and effervescence of Mr Astaire’s feet, or perhaps a Mozart-da Ponte comedy

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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