The minor quibble with the stage version of Top Hat that you and others may have if you are fans of the original film will be that it’s not quite the film. Well, it couldn’t be; so get over it! It’s been expanded to make into a more value-for-your-money length than the usual musicals (stage and film) of the 1930s; and the main love duo simply cannot be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Who could? So if you go in expecting them to be, you will be disappointed and possibly even frustrated.
However, the energy and commitment of the entire cast is such that I would bet they’ll win you over within about ten minutes. Once you recognize that (still in keeping with the times in which it was conceived) this version of Top Hat is trying to delight a contemporary audience by referring in mood and spectacle to the kind of musical they used to turn out on Broadway and in Hollywood in the 1930s, and once you accept that Alan Burkitt, playing Jerry Travers, has much more the style and body shape of, say, Ray Bolger and that Charlotte Gooch, playing Dale Tremont, would not make a bad, though somewhat more slender and sexy, Alice Faye (with a dash of Betty Grable or June Haver), then you will find you are very much in the right place to enjoy a nostalgic evocation of the 1930s whacky musical that aimed to make you forget there was a Depression on, and ignore the gathering clouds of war while promoting a fantastical and ersatz sophistication.
The score, of course, is by the father of the American song, Irving Berlin. It’s very nicely and suitably arranged for a good pit band stylishly led by Jae Alexander. Design of the sets and costumes is smart and conjures up a sense of the period (all praises to Hildegard Bechtler and Jon Morrell) and provides a real pleasure for the eye. Matthew White, the director, and Bill Deamer, the choreographer, have certainly evoked the all tap-dancing, all-singing, strictly farcical and silly mood of the musicals of that era and the songs, adding a nice mix of Berlin songs from a few places to the original Top Hat five, will have you wanting to sing along. The extra songs also give a spotlight moment to each of the six main characters, and each is deserved and well-handled.
The energy of the slick and well-drilled ensemble will also make you tap your toes and wish to get out of your seat and join in. I think there may be three or four stars of the future working hard among the gypsies. Clive Hayward, as Horace Hardwick (originally Edward Everett Horton) and Rebecca Thornhill as Madge Hardwick (originally the inimitable Helen Broderick) steal just about every scene they are in; and Sebastien Torkia, as Alberto, (originally Erik Rhodes) is very striking in his role and like John Conroy (in the Erik Blore part of Bates the Butler) does a very fine job erasing memories of the original; each puts his own stamps on his role.
Seeing the show did make me want to go back and compare it to the original film, of course; but it also gave me a great deal of pleasure on its own terms and I came away with admiration for the performances of everyone up on that stage and for the pit band. The audience certainly got into the swing of things and by the time you get to the choreographed curtain calls and reprises of the most famous songs, it is a very hard thing to leave the theatre.
Top Hat in this incarnation is certainly Top Drawer and if you need a completely charming evening out forgetting the problems of the world (as the original audience for the film certainly did), you should go along. Or even if you just want to hear those Irving Berlin songs well performed and discover the likes of Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch for whom somebody should really write a show. It may be retro, but it’s the latest and most entertaining retro around. The show is touring the country and with luck will arrive in a theatre near you.
- Matthew White and Howard Jacques based on RKO’s Motion Picture
- Directed by Matthew White
- Cast includes: Alan Burkitt, Charlotte Gooch, Clive Hayward, Rebecca Thornhill, Sebastien Tonkia, John Conroy
- New Theatre, Oxford
- Until 7th February 2015 and then on tour
- Review by Mel Cooper
- 29 January 2015