Venturing into a stage adaptation of a book when you haven’t read the book is a bit of minefield. What should I be comparing it to? Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet caused waves when it was first published. As did the subsequent TV production. Which I also didn’t see. So what was I expecting?
Well, as for all theatre, I was hoping to care. I’m a story junkie at heart and so, yes, I might not have known every detail of this story of a young girl finding the courage to come out as a lesbian in a world that demands she keeps that love hidden, but I wanted this show to make me care about it.
But, oh, this production gives so much more than that! For this is no orthodox retelling of a serious but life-reaffirming story. Instead this stage adaptation is funny, full of energy, and brimming over with bawdy humour, song and dance, and dazzling spectacle.
The opportunity presented by the story’s principal setting of a Victorian music hall is grabbed by both hands by director Lyndsey Turner and playwright Laura Wade.
This is very much a show within a show (within another show). David Cardy leads us Emcee-style through the life and times of Nancy (Sally Messham), from her first lustful thoughts for performance artist Kitty (Laura Rogers) through her whirlwind existence in the big smoke – from rejected lover to sex worker, through to kept woman and socialist reformer.
Music hall numbers are effortlessly weaved into the production. But orthodoxy is out the window and instead of the traditional fayre, in comes Prince, Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat… There’s a bit of Sia, Amy and even Nicki Minaj thrown in too.
The feeling is warm, witty with laughs aplenty – after all, you’ve got to keep the audience rolling in the aisles. This show is packed full of entertainment, whether it’s lovers swinging from chandeliers, or mournful solos whilst hanging from a meat-hook. And everything is thrown in from traditional seaside-style cut out photo boards to dildos, from human ventriloquist dummies to song and dance numbers.
And the performances from the cast match the spectacle, particularly Sally Messham as Nancy. She gives everything to what is an intensely physically demanding role. Her depiction of a working class girl battling both herself and everyone around her is brilliantly conveyed. But there is a beating heart beneath the tough shell and this comes across wonderfully.
The production isn’t completely watertight – the story drags In a couple of places, particularly in the final section where Nancy blossoms with her involvement in the Bethnal Green socialist movement – and I suspect some may feel the production is a little too flippant but I’m all for forgiving these as, quite simply, the show does have an emotional impact.
The interpretation is risky, yes, but theatre should be risky. And for all the theatrical spectacle and the clever tricks, you feel for Nancy, you really do. You’re rooting for her and at the climax, when she understands what it is she truly needs, it’s a great feeling. Tipping the Velvet is a bright, witty production – but it also has a heart.
Lyric Hammersmith, London to October 24, 2015
- Sally Messham playing Nancy Astley & company in Tipping the Velvet Photo by Johan Persson
- Sally Messham playing Nancy Astley & Laura Rogers playing Kitty Butler in Tipping the Velvet Photo by Johan Persson
- Laura Rogers playing Kitty Butler in Tipping the Velvet Photo by Johan Persson