Ah, 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.
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.