Some sprightly choreography sprinkles this production of Top Hat, and I have yet to work out whether it is because of or despite the relatively limited stage space. There’s always a third option: both. Either way, the stage version of the 1935 film premiered in 2011 (although, yes, it comes across as something that’s been around for decades), and the contemporary twist to the show comes in the form of dance numbers that do well to advance the storyline, as opposed to the narrative coming to an absolute standstill while the cast’s feet do all the work.
But that’s about it in terms of modernity – urgent messages are conveyed by telegram, a man could dress in “top hat, white tie and tails” and not look out of place, and a good number of the Irving Berlin tunes are widely recognisable. Some parts of the plot are entertaining, while others are quite absurd: Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay Payne) is, by all accounts, intelligent and articulated, but apparently hasn’t worked out that Jerry Travers (Jack Butterworth) isn’t Horace Hardwick (Paul Kemble), although the former is a top Broadway ‘name’ that has come over to London to star in a show over here, and the latter is the said show’s producer. Surely Tremont couldn’t have been that foolish?
A key part of The Mill at Sonning’s offering to patrons is a pre-theatre dinner. Although other theatres have an on-site restaurant (the Minerva Bar & Grill at Chichester Festival Theatre is a personal favourite), this one makes a point of including the dinner (buffet main, dessert) and coffee in the ticket price. I didn’t feel it was necessary to return for second helpings, as the food on offer was sufficiently filling, and there was a good variety of choices to satisfy most dietary requirements. (Just don’t overdo it with the gravy, else one might find oneself doing a careful balancing act carrying one’s plate to one’s table).
Butterworth, in the leading role, seemingly makes light work of the demanding song and dance numbers – he sings as well as he dances, with a personable charm and warm stage presence. Delme Thomas shines as Beddini, an Italian clothes designer, impressively flamboyant and hilarious when he doesn’t quite get English language idioms right. Bates (Brendan Cull), Horace Hardwick’s trusty butler, raised laughs aplenty with his methods of carrying out his employer’s instructions. The ‘real’ star here, however, is Jason Denvir’s set, which transforms from, say, a hotel lobby to a bridal suite, with incredible inventiveness. The costumes (Natalie Titchener) are stunning, with much to admire across the board.
There are only three musicians listed in the programme, though they made themselves sound as though there were at least triple that number. With no weak links in the cast, and never a step even half an inch out of place, this slick and sophisticated production warms all but the very hardest of hearts. It’s an appealing and entertaining show that’s been revived at the right time, providing musical escapism at its finest at a time when there are concerns about economic recovery and even food and fuel. No shortages of joy and delight to report here.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘Top Hat’ brings the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age and the magic of the world-famous dance partnership of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers to the stage. This 2011 musical based on the 1935 film of the same name, tells the story of Broadway sensation Jerry Travers who dances his way across Europe to win the heart of society girl Dale Tremont. With an uplifting and entertaining script, this show celebrates 1930s song, style and romance. Underpinning every scene are Irving Berlin’s magnificent songs including; Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’, ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day’, and of course, ‘Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’.
Jack Butterworth (Jerry Travers)
Brendan Cull (Bates)
Tiffany Graves (Madge)
Billie-Kay (Dale Tremont)
Paul Kemble (Horace)
Delme Thomas (Beddini)
Ensemble of Joel Baylis, Charlie Booker, Courtney George, Jinny Gould, Alex Harrison, Connor Hughes, Meg Power and Charlotte Coggin.
Creative Team: Director Jonathan O’Boyle, Choreographer Ashley Nottingham, Set Designer Jason Denvir, Sound Designer Chris Whybrow, Musical Arrangements Francis Goodhand, Musical Director Chris Poon, Lighting Designer Nic Farman.
Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Based on RKO’s Motion Picture
Book by Matthew White & Howard Jacques
The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Reading, RG4 6TY
16 October, 2021 – 8 January, 2022