The pace is so relentless one might suspect the production of attempting obfuscation of, or misdirection away from, some fundamental lack — but this is Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, scripted by the rhapsodic Laura Wade, with the reliable dynamism of Lyndsey Turner at its directorial helm. The ensemble rows together to simulate a train, sounding out background noise and geographic specificities of the track from Whitstable to London as Nancy Astley (her evolution from naivete to the cocksure recklessness that follows damage to organic coherence and certainty is played with unflagging energy and subtle seamless sympathy by Sally Messham) and Kitty Butler (swaggered through with sinuous suppleness by Laura Rogers), versifies and sings on demand, (singly and together) switches character with the rapidity and finality of affixing a hat on one or another head — with the enthusiasm of a drinking game and the brilliant proficiency, dexterity, and adroitness of acrobats.
Which is less figurative than might sound: sex is a seated ballet-salsa on swirling chandeliers; Nan’s headspace consists of puppets, human as well as wooden, and the sensational ‘treasure chest’ to which she is introduced by Diana Leatherby (rendered with suave, feline cruelty by Kirsty Besterman), inhabited by Madame Mask, Monsieur Dildo and all their children, evokes a gymnast’s burlesque fantasy. Lizzie Clachan’s design and Turner’s direction both tend decidedly toward the spectacular: the colours are jewel-bright, textiles and backdrops lavish and opulent (even Bethnal Green’s dilapidation is grandiloquent), the lighting vacillates between sharp spotlights, all deep shadows and darkly-scored outlines, and heavy, significant dusk. Michael Bruce is likewise liberal and promiscuous with his choice and use of musical accompaniment: there is an orchestra as well as the (ensemble-constituted) band, ditties and drinking songs abound, Edith Piaf and Amy Winehouse are both commandeered at crucial moments to translate the performance of emotion, to facilitate and pitch high-strung affect.
The most noteworthy moment in an exquisitely polished, stylish production, however, is sometimes not: “Do you think I can’t hear you?” asks Nancy, whirling with real desperation, poignantly graceless, on the ringmaster who’s been mediating our responses to her crises, her experiences, her life, presenting her body and her choices, offering her up to the audience as he proffers the visual and tactile, olfactory and auditory feast of London 1895, imagining and articulating into being the gory, the gluttonous, the putrid, the fragrant, the silky and brassy, the gorgeous stews and delights and material we recognise as that paradoxical animal, atmospheric Victoriana. “Do you think I don’t know you’re there?” We might cheer this evidence of agency, sovereignty, performative emancipation, but the enthusiasm with which we have enjoyed being serviced, maneuvered and entertained just so, makes us complicit in, the cause and primary beneficiaries as we have been, of her agonizing ontogeny.
It requires a special kind of (universal but uniquely human) ability to divorce oneself unhesitatingly and instantaneously (as we do) from the scapegoat once the bill has come due, to laugh, rest assured that it is not us Nancy pins in place with her furious gaze as she spits out, “I can see you.” When she shakes the gavel she has wrested from David Cardy’s gregarious, perfect amalgam of master storyteller and streetside salesman extraordinaire, and turns out the lights, one is almost, for a moment, relieved. The explicit carnival of Tipping the Velvet is only the tip of an iceberg it sets in motion within the mind: the politics of representation, of established and startling, expected and unexpected, narrative arcs and narrations of herstories which the play juggles so well have tumbled thick and fast through over three hours; in the spectator discontented, disenchanted, dissatisfied with her role as mere voyeur they have the potential to set off an avalanche.