Review: Top Hat - Aldwych Theatre
Performance reviewed: 12 July
Arriving flustered and drenched after weather-induced tube delays and having struggled through a deluge on the walk from Holborn, my journey would have been more appropriate as a prelude to Singin’ in the Rain rather than an evening of white tie and tails on the Venice Lido. But, happily, I was to find the Summer that has been so elusive right there on the Aldwych stage. Not merely in three glorious hours of unashamedly wallowing in nostalgic, escapist fun but more precisely in the subtly-nuanced and precisely detailed performance of the vivacious Summer Strallen as Dale Tremont.
I count myself as privileged to have seen the late Ginger Rogers in the title role of Mame at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, some 40 years ago. Short of beaming in a hologram of the 1935 Ginger, Summer was as close to the real thing as it can be possible to imagine. She captured what Arlene Croce once described as the ‘lunar radiance’ of Ginger’s dancing style while matching the hyper-flexibility of her notable deep back bends and high kicks. Even the breathless, extra prefix of her “whuh” in “why” was a perfect representation of Rogers’ upper-class Bostonian intonation (although her itinerant life took Ginger to virtually every corner of the USA but New England).
Strallen also sings beautifully with a strong range, especially in the upper register and her delivery of the seductively comic Wild About You and the melancholic ballad Better Luck Next Time (imported from Easter Parade where it was originally sung by Judy Garland) were A-star highlights of a great show. The minutiae of Strallen’s interpretation of the sharp, sassy but always ladylike charisma of Rogers as Tremont in this film-brought-back-to-life-on-stage makes for one simply stunning performance. If there has been a better song and dance turn by a romantic comedienne on the West End stage in recent years then I’ll eat my hat, even if it is a topper!
It must be said that Strallen’s performance is greatly enhanced by the superb styling of this production. The costumes and set design are magnificent and faultless in their relevance to 1935. Dale Tremont’s outfits are arrestingly evocative without being copies of the originals: from the riding jacket and breeches she wears in the scene for Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain?)’ to her cool palazzo pants by the Lido and onto the gorgeous ball gown for the iconic Cheek to Cheek number. The styling is a great part of the show’s success.
Similarly, one must commend the adaptation of the movie script by Matthew White and Howard Jacques which enhances the sharpness of the dialogue and the wit of the one-liners. I loved that Rogers’ own comment on her dancing with Astaire – “I did everything that he did, backwards and in heels” – is built into the lines for Tremont.
The RKO film contains only a half-dozen musical numbers and this is more than doubled with other songs from Irving Berlin’s mammoth catalogue being imported to fill the show. Most notably Let’s Face The Music and Dance crosses over from the next film in the Astaire/Rogers series (Follow The Fleet from 1936); the show’s opening ensemble tap number Puttin’ on the Ritz pre-dated Top Hat by several years; and You’re Easy to Dance With was performed by Astaire (with Virginia Dale, not Rogers) at the beginning of Holiday Inn. While absorbing the nostalgia of the 1930s it is salutary to note that a Broadway show could be a hit with just six numbers back then, while today’s fast-pace needs to pack in at least fifteen even if everyone of them is a classic from Berlin’s Great American Songbook!
In the Astaire role of Jerry Travers, Tom Chambers also defied my expectations. His light, lyrical baritone was often reminiscent of Astaire’s charismatic delivery and Chambers performed with the nonchalant swagger and confidence of the Broadway star he was playing. His footloose tapping was certainly up to scratch but he looked uncomfortable in the Cheek to Cheek number, which had a stuttering start and for me was by far the biggest disappointment of the evening. The big romantic “ballroom” duet got a second chance with Let’s Face The Music and Dance and this was much better delivered.
There are top marks also for excellent performances among the supporting players. Vivien Parry and Martin Ball were tremendous fun as Horace and Madge Hardwick; Stephen Boswell’s deadpan humour was just right as the manservant, Bates; and Ricardo Afonso has a ball with the hilarious role of Alberto Bedini (Dale’s frock designer and ardent admirer), including his brilliant comedy number in Latins Know How.
This is a show that caricatures the Italian designer as a “strutting peacock”, a dandy with brilliantine’d hair who knows how to “mak-a” love to the woman and “taka da sw-ord” to the man. As many have said before, the story of Top Hat is thin (everything concerns a mistaken identity) and the national stereotypes from the grumpy English gentlemen in their club to the Italians on the Lido are as formulaic as cardboard cut-outs.
Top Hat transports us back to a time that really never was but lives on in an idealised fantasy where everyone existed permanently in evening dress, palazzo pants and ‘Bedini’ gowns. I have the fondest memories of watching the Astaire/Rogers musicals late at night, always between Christmas and the New Year, alone and curled up on my grandmother’s couch – where I became immersed in a world of pink champagne and seaplanes. I thank this team for bringing these memories back to me and, above all, for giving us this glimpse of a radiant Summer.
Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre – booking until April 2013
Leave a comment
You must be signed in to post comments.