‘Top Hat’ (Festival Theatre: 7 – 18 October ’14)

“Hayward is Wodehousian perfection – the only actor who might do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Michael Clarke Duncan, as death row inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), got it about right. The night before he becomes a dead man walking, Coffey is granted a clandestine glimpse of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing cheek to cheek in Irving Berlin’s Hollywood classic Top Hat (1935). “They’s just like angels” he declares, utterly awestruck.

Expectations couldn’t be higher as we take our seats for the stage adaptation. “I wish Monty was here!” laments Companion A to Companion B, “he loves Strictly.” Monty-The-Dog’s inclusion in the lasses’ Saturday night ritual might suggest he’s more Withnail and I than WWII general. But like millions of contemporary Brits, Monty is a sucker for a sequin dress spinning at a bajillion miles an hour. If he were here, he’d be wanting dance, laughs, toe-tappin’, and above all, glamour… with a capital BLING! He would not be disappointed.

The plot is as subtle as a Shakespeare comedy, mistaken identity taking true love on a harebrained, helter-skelter ride. Boy annoys girl by dancing night and day in the hotel room above hers at an hour when even the coal porter is asleep. When she complains, he falls in love. She doesn’t and, much to the vexation of the theatrical producer of the West End show this boy is meant to be focused on, boy pursues girl from Hyde Park to Lido di Venezia.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a triumph, it’s how you want the 1930s to look. Art Deco, modernist, functional, and not a hint of a black shirt sneaking across il Ponte della Libertà. It’s not flawless – how come the parkscape scenery doesn’t move when the carriage does, and why is there a gap above the dressing table? But if you measure a set by how much you want to sit down in it- maybe sipping a Jack Rose while watching Katherine Hepburn mud wrestle Lucy Mercer – then Bechtler’s done alright.

The chemistry between Alan Burkitt (Jerry Travers) and Charlotte Gooch (Dale Tremont), never entirely ignites. Burkitt, former All England Tap Dancer of the Year and a Strictly Come Dancing favourite is superb, interstellar even. Gooch is both sultry and supercharged, staying cheek to cheek and toe to toe with Burkitt. They’re individually strong performances, worth the entry price alone, however they don’t seem to mesh. The double-edged lyrics of Wild About You fall disappointingly flat, while the inclusion of Rogers’ oft-quoted trusim, “I did everything he did, backwards … and in high heels,” is delivered more like a professional rebuke than a playful remark.

In contrast, the magnetic attraction of Clive Hayward (as producer Horace Hardwick) and Rebecca Thornhill (Madge, his socialite spouse) provides a true dose of human interest and drama. Hayward is Wodehousian perfection. He’s so good in fact that he may be the only actor who could do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.

Sebastien Torkia, as Tremont’s flamboyant BFF, and John Conroy, as Hardwick’s laconic gentleman’s personal gentleman, tap out Top Hat’s theatrical high notes. Torkia takes it to the edge and over, defying gravity to reach a level of lunacy that must be seen to be believed. Conroy is no less ambitious and equally brilliant, delivering each put down, as well as the story’s clever resolution, with a knowing confidence that never slips into arrogance.

Accompanying vignettes by the cast add to the seamless sparkle. I especially like the interplay between Lucy Ashenden and Edinburgh’s own John McManus in the hotel scenes which add depth and contrast. The great success of this great production is that amid all the careful choreography is a joyous piece of live theatre that will score with huffy hubby as assuredly as any bevy of sassy Strictly seekers.

Come for the dancing but stay for the theatricals. Bravo!

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 October)

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