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Top Hat – The Mill at Sonning Theatre

This production makes excellent use of the available stage space – and, rather like the big musicals at Chichester Festival Theatre, has its cast making en masse entrances and exits through the auditorium. The amphitheatre-esque seating configuration makes this a good experience from most vantage points, and the costumes are exquisite and absolutely in keeping with the interwar period.

Top Hat. Billie-Kay and Jonny Labey. Photo Andreas Lambis.
Top Hat. Billie-Kay and Jonny Labey. Photo Andreas Lambis.

Just don’t go for a gripping plotline because you won’t find one here – this is one of those fluffy musicals that are best enjoyed by sitting back and appreciating the many song and dance routines.

As tickets to the show include a pre-show buffet, and a very filling and tasty one at that, the venue makes it rather easy for patrons to have a full meal and a catch-up with friends, which resolves one of the issues people sometimes comment on when it comes to going to the theatre – irrespective of the show’s production values, there isn’t always enough time for conversation with others that they may not have seen for a while (and may not see for some time after). Just don’t overdo it with the gravy, or you may find yourself attempting a balancing act worthy of a production of Barnum to get to your allocated table.

A very likeable Jonny Labey glides seemingly effortlessly through the dance numbers as Jerry Travers, while Billie-Kay as the well-off Dale Tremont runs the full gamut of human emotions, from frustration at Travers getting more than a few steps of tap dancing in his hotel room (which, in the most gloriously contrived fashion, happens to be directly above hers) to the heady heights of the show’s musical theatre happy ending. It’s the supporting cast that steal the show, however, in the form of Paul Kemble’s Horace Hardwick, a theatre producer, who together with his resourceful valet Bates (Brendan Cull) brought the house down with comic timing time and time again.

In this relatively intimate theatre space, it’s not exactly difficult to appreciate quite how well-drilled this production is, both in terms of movement and choreography (Ashley Nottingham) and in the execution of swift scene changes. Some recognisable showtunes provide an air of familiarity, with the occasional lyric inadvertently injecting doses of reality into this otherwise majestic foray into escapism – or is it almost always the case that, one way or another, “there may be trouble ahead”?

Some inventive staging successfully takes the action from hotel room to hotel lobby, from indoors to outdoors, and even from land to water. The ensemble do well to put in place those fixed smiles required of people who must be seen at a ball to be having a Very Good Time regardless of whether they really are. Mind you, if there’s anyone on this stage that isn’t enjoying themselves, they’re hiding it very convincingly – and this is a heart-warming seasonal treat without being specifically about the festive period. A sparkling and joyful experience.

4 stars

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.

Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Based on RKO’s Motion Picture
Book by Matthew White & Howard Jacques

Creative team:
Director Jonathan O’Boyle
Choreographer Ashley Nottingham
Musical Arrangements & Musical Director Francis Goodhand
Set Designer Jason Denvir
Costume Designer Natalie Titchener
Sound Designer Chris Whybrow
Lighting Designer Nic Farman

The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Sonning Eye
Reading RG4 6TY
Box Office: 0118 969 8000
16 November – 30 December 2022

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