Andrew recently passed a big and significant landmark which, to put it delicately, did not involve sitting aboard the 52 bus and whizzing past the Royal Albert Hall.
No, it was one of those occasions where everyone was coming up with ideas for unusual things he could do on the actual day. Phil suggested he stayed in and blew the dust off that anthology of Harold Pinter he gave him several birthdays ago. Some hope. (In case you’re interested, he ended up spending it with Nancy Lam)
But if Andrew ever feels despondent about his advancing years he can always instantly feel 20 years younger for the price of a theatre ticket – at least for as long as Top Hat runs.
The Whingers were feeling almost nubile amongst the Aldwych crowd. When Phil stood up before the show started to see how many were in the orchestra pit (15 for the record) a shrinking mittel-European lady behind him tapped him on the shoulder and anxiously enquired, “I hope you’re not going to keep standing up during ze show”.
When you think about it, it’s rather a surprise that Top Hat - which is based on the classic RKO film – hasn’t been done on stage before. The logical solution was to supplement the few songs in the film with an extra 10 from Irving Berlin‘s mostly wonderful and overflowing back catalogue.
The plot is as agreeably daffy as one might expect; American dancer and part time stalker Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers) comes to London to star in a show, spends most of the day of his opening night running round London before heading off to the theatre after 5pm so that he can meet his fellow performers for the first time. How the cast of this show must laugh at the plot. Judging by the precision of their routines there’s little sign they’ve been out hijacking horse-drawn carriages rather than rehearsing all day.
Travers persues Dale Tremont’s (Summer Strallen) affections after she comes up to his suite to complain about him keeping her awake by constantly dancing in the hotel room above hers (an effect that’s neatly realised). Of course mistaken identities ensue and everyone heads to Venice immediately after his show opens. Wasn’t the world of showbiz grand in 1935? We do hope Mr Chambers has his Ryanair ticket booked.
There are a few laugh-out-loud lines and even Ginger Rogers’ famous quote about dancing with Fred Astaire shoe-horned in, but largely the book suggests they had a few Christmas crackers to hand. Now, heaven knows, the Whingers go hand-in-hand with bad gags, but here the corn is as high as a theatre’s fly.
Elegantly mounted with art deco sets (Hildegard Bechtler) and lavishly costumed (Andrew was especially taken by a Fortuny frock worn by a member of the ensemble in the finale, though sadly doesn’t have the hips to pull it off), this doesn’t have the look of a show that’s been trolling round the country for months on tour.
The Whingers are easy to bring on side with crisply executed tap dancing (choreography Bill Deamer), though this all but dries up after the interval. Phil was constantly looking at their shoes to see if they had those shiny metal bits attached. Perhaps they should have irresponsibly left the tap running for the whole show.
Chambers charms as Travers and his apparent dedication to getting the moves right has payed off, none more so than his self-choreographed fannying around with a hat stand.
The famille Strallen must be feeling very proud at the moment. You wait for years for one iconic movie musical to be turned into a stage show featuring a song about – rather topically - getting caught in the rain starring one of your girls and you get two opening within a matter of months (sister Scarlett is sploshing at the Palace).
The supporting cast all do well with the material on hand: Martin Ball makes a likeable Horace Hardwick, Vivien Parry as his wife Madge wrestles the biggest laughs out of the better gags, Portuguese actor Ricardo Afonso makes the clichéd funny foreigner role (Italian) more than bearable although it did put Andrew in mind of Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone (“the man of a 1000 accents, all of them offensive”). Stephen Boswell uses his Charles Hawtrey-ish face to good effect.
The lowest point of the show was undoubtedly the role of the gratuitous gay dresser whose queerness was clearly thought to be so amusing in its own right that the addition of any genuinely funny lines would have been redundant. It probably played well in the provinces and – to be fair – it played unnervingly well at the Aldwych.
With a bit of serious graft on the book (adapted from the film by Howard Jacques and the show’s director Matthew White) this really might have flown. Yet, unlike some of the audience, the Whingers felt unmoved to ovate; a relief for Phil who was still terrified of upsetting the old bag behind him.
But, with birthdays still on the Whingers’ minds, Top Hat feels like unwrapping a beautifully wrapped present and finding a pair of socks inside (ill-fitting, polyester ones at that); acceptable, but disappointing.
The Whingers’ Top Hat tickets were generously provided by cheaptheatretickets.com.