It probably goes without saying that we had been looking forward to this since the pre-West End tour was announced last year. The first time the classic 1930’s Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers film musical has been produced on stage and including all the Irving Berlin standards from the movie (Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t This a Lovely Day? Top Hat, White Ties & Tails) plus a few more that have been imported from elsewhere (Let’s Face The Music & Dance, Puttin’ on The Ritz), it was really only a matter of time before we were gracing the Aldwych with our presence. We allowed them a week of previews before snapping up a couple of dress circle slips seats for £27.50, which is all our budget runs to in these double dipping days. You do miss a chunk of the stage on the side you’re sitting but, in the words of Mrs Lovett via Mr Sondheim, times is hard. Coincidentally, as the slips seats are at the side of row A, this is the first time anything on this blog has actually been viewed from Front Row Dress. That alone was worth a celebratory double vodka and tonic in the stunning dress circle bar before curtain up.
In the Astaire role of Jerry Travers, a Broadway hoofer lured to London to star in a new show, is Tom Chambers, former Holby City dreamboat and worthy winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2008. Taking the Rogers part of society fashion model, Dale Tremont, is Summer Strallen, West End veteran (Drowsy Chaperone, Sound of Music, Love Never Dies) and part of the Strallen dynasty, without whom half of the theatres in London would have no leading lady.
The action opens with Travers’ final night on Broadway and, as it is a tap production number of Puttin’ on The Ritz, we were won over immediately. Chambers is a magnificent dancer with a winning personality and slips easily into the skin of Travers. The slightly reedy tone of his singing voice suits the mood perfectly, recalling so many movie musicals of the golden age.
Moving to a hotel in London, Travers meets up with his friend and producer of his West End show, bumbling would-be lothario Horace Hardwick, played by Martin Ball, one of three magnificent male comic creations that run throughout the evening. The other two being Stephen Boswell as Bates, Hardwick’s long-suffering but endlessly creative butler-cum-amateur sleuth, and the scene-stealing and occasionally scene chewing, Ricardo Afonso as Alberto Beddini, the Italian fashion designer whose muse is Summer Strallen’s Dale Tremont.
Travers attempts to woo Tremont but, in a case of mistaken identity, she thinks she is being romantically pursued by her best friend’s husband and is suitably horrified. The first act ends with an enormous production number of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and, as we had also already had our first tap-dancing bell boys of the evening, we were grinning from ear to ear as we imbibed our interval refreshments.
The second act takes place in Venice, where Beddini is to show his new collection, modelled by Tremont, and where Hardwick’s wife, Vivien Parry’s sophisticated, wise-cracking, slightly world weary Madge, is currently ensconced. I’d better not reveal the ending, but you probably have a good idea of the trajectory of the story. Along the way there are dance numbers aplenty, wonderfully evocative sets, gorgeous costumes and fabulously witty dialogue, adapted from the original film script by director Matthew White.
I think it’s fair to say we loved this production. The actors are at the top of their game, the choreography by Bill Deamer is sensational and Hildegard Bechtler’s sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes evoke the period faultlessly. The laughs come thick and fast and the additional songs have been seamlessly inserted so it genuinely feels that they belong in the piece. I’d never heard the comic duet between the warring Hardwick’s before, Outside of That, I Love You, but it seemed such a perfect fit that I had to check that it wasn’t written for the movie, which it wasn’t.
Summer Strallen keeps her family’s good name intact and is every inch the likeable triple threat. Tom Chambers, already a star on the small screen, can now add West End star to his resume. The supporting cast and ensemble never put a foot wrong, in fact it was only Chambers who had a “cane incident”, from which he quickly recovered with a twinkle in his eye and a wry grin to the audience.
Apparently tickets are deservedly selling like hot cakes, I did wonder if competition from Singin’ In The Rain, starring another Strallen, Scarlett, might beat them with the recognition factor, but there is certainly room for two classic escapist musicals to alleviate the gloom in these dark days.
Booking until 26 January 2013, joyous, escapist, top-notch fun - Top Hat