Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning in 2021

‘The dance has a dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone’: TOP HAT – The Mill at Sonning ★★★★

In Musicals, Opinion, Other Recent Articles, Regional theatre, Reviews by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

Mill at Sonning, Reading – until 8 January 2022

This was a new outing for me. I have long loved the Watermill some miles west, but I hadn’t really registered the Mill at Sonning with it’s even bigger – and working, and electricity-providing –  waterwheel,  roomy ancient bar and elegant semicircular auditorium with perfect sightlines everywhere. It makes you wish there were even more theatres in old watermills: they’re obviously ideal for it.

Anyway, several reports had assured me that Irving Berlin’s Top Hat was being given all it needs, out there by the Thames banks, not least top quality tapdancing.   They were right. This is the frothiest,  most absurd of the golden-age film musicals (everyone’s Fred Astaire-way to movie heaven).  It is a gorgeous wisecracking nonsense, with a plot based on a single improbable misunderstanding spun into absurdity gold. Kenny Wax got the rights to do it on stage in 2011, whence it toured the UK with extra Irving Berlin songs and duly hauled in Oliviers at the Aldwych.

But how does it do on a smaller scale? Excellently, not least because the extraordinary percussive mass tap-sessions are even more exciting right up close; and there is something almost pheromonally stimulating about being in the actual room, not at all far from the energetic, impossible athleticism of top dancers. Whether hard tap, soft shuffle or ballroom it has dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone, as witnessed in a certain amount of scampering and attempts to shuffle in the gravel on the way to the car park.  Well, in my case anyway.

ack Butterworth is a light-footed whirl of mischief as Jerry Travers, Billie Kaye just the right foil for him, both of their looks pleasingly in period (Jason Denvir’s set is wonderful Art Deco,  and ingeniously turns the backdrop and cramped wings into a Broadway stage, a park, two elegant hotel rooms with big beds and the Venice Lido) . Tiffany Graves and Paul Kemble are irresistible as the put-upon producer Horace and his cool sarcastic wife Madge,  bringing the house down with their big late number about hating each other (“Outside of that, I love you!”).  Delme Thomas is suitably ridiculous as a cartoon Italian dress designer in snow-white spats, Brendan Cull suitably weird as Bates the Valet,  and Charlie Booker,  making a professional debut among the fantastic fast-moving ensemble,  gets a special camp moment of his own.

Actually, one of the pleasures of this daft piece is that so many performers do get their high moment,  as well as the four principals.   And of course the vaudeville-level wisecracking crosstalk is vital. Magnificently terrible 1935 jokes:   I had completely forgotten that gag “You don’t know what it means to come home to a woman who’ll show you a little love a little tenderness.  It means you’re in the wrong house”.  Beautifully delivered: we all barked delightedly.

Jonathan O”Boyle directs with speed and elegance,  and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is a marvel.  Well, show-dancers close up are a marvel anyway.    To make it all still jollier, for a proper night out under the ancient beams  the £69  ticket includes a two course buffet dinner (top steak and ale pie!) . I have rather taken to the Mill at Sonning, and am very glad its angels and the Covid Recovery Fund mean it’s still here.  A Christmas treat.

Box office  millatsonning.com    to 8 Jan (wisely having a Christmas break, though, so get booking)

‘The dance has a dizzying, hypnotic effect on everyone’: @lib_thinks marvels at the ‘impossible athleticism’ of #TopHat’s dancers in @JonathanOBoyle’s ‘jolly’ production at @millatsonning. ★★★★

rating four

Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
Read more...

Tags: , , , , , ,

Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

Leave a Comment