Tag Archives: review

Tipping the Velvet in Hammersmith

lyricAh, Hammersmith. I attended university nearby so it’s something of an old stomping ground for me. Not an area I know particularly well these days, I found myself back there last weekend at the Lyric theatre. For my girlfriend’s birthday, I got us tickets to Tipping the Velvet, the stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ first novel. I’ve never read the book, although have read other of Waters’ work, and I also never saw the TV version either, so I was fairly in the dark about what to expect. I knew what everyone knows about it – that it’s a saucy tale of forbidden love between women in the Victorian era – and had been under the impression that it was a serious work. At least, serious apart from the lines Sophie read out to me when she was last reading the book.

The original Lyric Hammersmith (not to be confused with the West End’s own Lyric Theatre) was built in 1895, a bit further down the road from where it stands now. It did its duty for decades, but in 1966, was dismantled and moved, reopening in 1979. It supposedly favours original works, “groundbreaking productions”, and something with a bit of a quirk. It’s a gorgeous theatre, modern from the outside and in the bar, but once you get into the auditorium itself, you’re sent right back to the heyday of theatre, a wonderfully intricately ornate building.

But, on with the show.

Tipping the Velvet is the story of young Nancy Astley, the daughter of an oyster seller from Whitstable. She is obsessed with theatre, and in particular, the daring Kitty Butler, the best masher to tread the boards, a masher being a male impersonator. Immediately it’s clear that Nancy likes Kitty for more than just her stagework, and when Kitty offers Nancy a chance to work as her dresser, she leaps at the opportunity. Soon, the couple move to London so that Kitty can get a bigger audience, and when the show tanks, Nancy steps up to the plate as Nan King, and the pair form a double act.

This show is a now a success, but everything crumbles when Nancy finds Kitty in bed with their (male) manager and announces that they are to be married. Nancy is turfed out into the streets and from there begins her journey through the seedy underbelly of London, working as a male prostitute, being held captive by an upper class nymphomaniac, and then meeting a down-to-earth social worker with whom she may find more than just a fling.

Coming out of the show, I turned to Sophie and said, “Is the book … funny?”

“No,” she said. “It’s a romp, and it’s fun, but I wouldn’t say funny.”

Because that’s the odd thing about this play. It’s absolutely hilarious.

Adapted for the stage by Laura Wade, and directed by Lydnsey Turner (who is also currently directing Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet at the Barbican; a play that feels a world away from this one), it’s been in production for four years and finally premiered now. Although the plot and staging feels wonderfully Victorian, the stylistic flourishes are totally modern.

Kitty, London's finest masher Credit: Johan Persson

Kitty, London’s finest masher
Credit: Johan Persson

It’s narrated by a music hall chairman, a chap with mile a minute dialogue and a gavel that he bangs to move the scenes along, sometimes to hugely comic effect when he’s bored of something. I get that at the time of music hall, this would have been a man, but it feels a fly in the ointment of a play where the cast is mostly women and is about female empowerment, to have a man tell the tale. Although, this leads to a nice bit towards the end where Nancy turns to the chairman for the first time, says she can hear all he’s been saying about her, wrestles his gavel from him and takes control of her own destiny.

The funniest scene occurs when Nancy becomes a rent boy (don’t question how she can become a male prostitute when she’s a woman, just go with it) and this is represented in an almost PG manner by a seaside photo-board with holes for men at both face and crotch level. While excited and expectant faces appear where you’d expect them to, the lower holes expel whistles, flutes, bells and horns, allowing Nancy to blow and tickle out the National Anthem, resulting in six blasts of confetti over the front rows of the audience.

The most incredible thing about the play though is the music. Obviously as much of it is set in the music hall, this was going to be a part of it, but the songs they sing are not the ones you might expect. Oh sure, they’ve been remastered to sound like they belong, but a quick listen to the lyrics reveals that these are not classic music hall songs. They include Etta James’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and wonderfully during a socialist rally at the play’s end, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”. Brilliantly chosen, superbly performed.

A quick note on the cast, too. They are all wonderful, with a great sense of comic timing. Laura Rogers is outstanding as Kitty, and special mention must go to Sally Messham who played Nancy. This is her professional stage debut and I see a bright future for her if she maintains this level of excellence. Adelle Leonce, who plays both Nancy’s sister Alice and her lover Florence is also outstanding, but suspension of disbelief is at maximum because the characters have very different relationships with Nancy, but the parts are each big enough that you notice that her sister is now her lover. It’s a small cast, and generally they all double up with ease, but in this case, it felt like a reach too far.

If you have the time or inclination to get yourself to Hammersmith before the run ends this week, you should really make the effort. If not, with a stellar cast, story and general production like this, I don’t imagine this is the last we’ve seen of this.

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Speakeasy Made Easy

The British like to drink. It’s been part of our culture for so long that other countries struggle to keep up. We aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world, certainly. It’s been estimated that we drink ten litres per person each year; the outright winners are Estonia who drink 12.3. But nonetheless, with it being such an important part of our heritage, it comes as no surprise that London is full of places to get tanked up.

Let the games begin...

Let the games begin…

How many? Well, that’s something for another day, but estimates range between four and seven thousand, depending on where you draw the borders and what counts as a pub or bar. You could drink in a different one every day for ten or more years. Today I’m just talking about one of them – BYOC.

There are actually three branches of BYOC in the country, two of them in London, but the following takes place in the Camden branch. I went there in May for a friend’s birthday. We’d been to a couple of other pubs in Camden first (which later turned out to be a mistake) and then turned up for our appointment at BYOC. Trouble is, it’s not exactly the easiest bar to find. When we did eventually find it, it was just a black door sandwiched between two nondescript shops, its name printed in small black letters on a glass panel above.

Why all the secrecy? Because BYOC is not your average bar. For one thing, it doesn’t have a liquor licence. It also doesn’t have any menus. BYOC stands for Bring Your Own Cocktail, which means you supply the alcohol that you want to drink. Then, with whatever you’ve selected, the mixologists add their non-alcoholic ingredients of fruit, syrups, juice and garnishes to produce cocktails specifically tailored for you.

There were nine of us there and we all chipped in to buy a good selection of drink, taking in a mix of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and prosecco. The mixologist assigned to our table said we’d probably get four or five drinks each in the two hours we were allotted (you have to book ahead of time, and that’s just how long you get). As it turned out, we made it through at least seven each.

The mixologists clearly know what they’re doing and have a cornucopia of non-alcoholic ingredients to make up whatever they want. You can specify what you want them to make, as we did a little later, but it’s just as easy to let them get on with it. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they’ll happily whip up some of the tastiest things you’ll ever drink.

A selection of drinks

A selection of drinks

Our first drink was a cool vodka and lychee cocktail with a raspberry floating in it, that worked almost as a palate cleanser, syrupy and sweet. For the second drink, the mixologist poured the whole bottle of rum into a glass bowl and created a rum punch, complete with edible flowers floating in it. (As a side note, if you’ve never eaten them, flowers taste exactly like you’d expect them to.)

While we drank the rum from cute glass teacups, the third drink was whipped up in the form of a gin and prosecco cocktail. These were followed by the strongest passionfruit margaritas in the world that had too much tequila for most of our tastes, but most of the group still managed to get them down, aided along by the previous drinks.

After that, we had very large shots of prosecco, which is an interesting sensation, and then a lurid green concoction of gin and cucumber. The final drink before we stumbled out into the evening was another gin, prosecco and raspberry cocktail. We’d drunk everything we brought in, apart from some dregs in the tequila bottle that no one was much keen on claiming ownership of. All in all, it was a fantastic night, although parts of it are a bit hazy.

The interior of the bar is gorgeous, compared to the unexceptional exterior, decorated entirely like a 1920s speakeasy. The music complements it wonderfully, and everything feels like you probably shouldn’t be there, again, like prohibition-era America and this is all top secret. We were sat at a blackjack table, complete with piles of gambling chips, but it’s all for show. I daresay if you bought some cards you could have a game or two, but the drink is really the priority here.

Alcohol is our friend.

Alcohol is our friend.

It’s not a place I think you could go to regularly, if only because the cost for two hours in there is £25 per person, but it’s good as an experience, and you definitely get your money’s worth. Obviously you have to also account for the cost of the alcohol you’re bringing in, but I would advise anyone going to not feel they have to splash out on the expensive brands. People on the table next to us had Beefeater gin and Grey Goose vodka, but we’d gone down a cheaper route and it definitely didn’t matter. Once everything’s mixed up anyway you can’t tell. I would also advise that you take a wide selection of drinks or you’re going to be limiting yourselves and the bartender. We had seven bottles between nine of us, and that worked out great.

The staff were very pleasant – we had a couple of mixologists over the course of the night – and BYOC prides itself on only hiring very experienced bartenders, all of whom know not only how to mix any cocktail you can name (as well as all having the balls to experiment and try new things all the time), but are knowledgeable on the history of cocktails, the scientific principles behind mixing and how to be a good host.

Get a group together and book yourselves a table at BYOC. It’s a great laugh and a genuinely good night out with a twist. My final piece of advice? There’s no need to go to anywhere else for a pre-drink. You just won’t need it.