Last Updated on 12th November 2021
Our very own TheatreCat Libby Purves reviews Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of Top Hat now playing at The Mill at Sonning.
Top Hat the musical
The Mill at Sonning
Until 8 January 2022
Book Top Hat Tickets
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 its 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 a 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.
Jack 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)