Tuesday, 26 October 2021

REVIEW: Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning

When we saw the wonderful 1934 Anything Goes musical revival at the Barbican this summer, I wondered how long it would be before I saw anything that good again with its starry cast, fabulous production values, funny script, and delightful Cole Porter music. Yet the Mill at Sonning’s revival of the 2013 stage version of the 1935 RKO Pictures classic black and white Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat, featuring the music of Irving Berlin, runs it a very close second on a fraction of the budget . This remarkable intimate little theatre is making something of a habit with brilliantly staged and choreographed musicals for Christmas following successes with My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls and Singing in the rain.

The auditorium has been transformed into an Art Deco/Egyptian wall which opens up to become the stage of Broadway and West End shows, hotel rooms in London and Venice and intervening external locations. Its cleverly designed by Jason Denvir to facilitate slick changes but creates clear distinctive locations with the wonderful lighting design, by Nic Farman, not only beautifully changing the colours but also adding nice touches with room numbers projected on the floor to provide important clarity about which floor we were on or a red spot to illuminate a top hat. It sets a perfect scene and is a great showcase for the talents of Master Carpenter and his team of scenic artistes. The design allows the maximum space to be available for the big showstopping dance sequences while still providing more intimate spaces for the comedy and romance.

And choreographer Ashley Nottingham (who also did Singin' in the rain) uses the space phenomenally well creating some fresh innovative routines that play tribute to the original but dazzle and entertain as anything you see on Strictly come Dancing or a West End stage. The wonderful opening number from the stage of Music Box Theatre in New York is a chorus of eight with Jerry Travers tapping dancing to "Putting on the Ritz” to set the tone and standard for the show. They return for a rousing Act 1 finale of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” from a West End stage. In the second half they deliver an elegant waltz with “Cheek to Cheek” before another delightful routine to “Let’s face the music and dance”. Indeed, all these numbers are joyous because of the music and dance rather than the story and lyrics. 

Travers is played by Jack Butterworth who glides across the stage with grace and light-footed movement and makes a perfect partner for Billie Kay’s elegant Dale Tremont who shines in “Isn’t it a lovely day”. The simple plot of mistaken identity as Tremont mistakes Travers for Horace provides the basis for the shows amusing comedy characters which concludes in a hilarious routine with Madge (Tiffany Graves ) and Horace (Paul Kemble) in “Outside of that, I love you”.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle gives each member of the ensemble chorus a clear distinctive character and a moment in the limelight and scatters funny old music hall one liners and visual gags throughout the show. But it is Brendan Cull who has the most fun as Bates, the loyal Butler who appears in various disguises and delivers a host of family sayings and advice with great comic expression and timing. He almost steals each scene he appears in. Equally, Delme Thomas also enjoys himself as the over-the-top fashion designer Beddini. But it is Natalie Titchener’s excellent costumes with elegant gowns, period bell boys and maids, and beach wear that catch the eye throughout and are the product of the Watermill’s team of costume and hat makers and their support and must keep the team of Dressers very busy!

Irving Berlin’s music is evocative of the period but at the same time uplifting and jolly and although the songs are not as strong as Cole Porter’s songs in Anything Goes, the tunes are classic light airy tunes here arranged by Francis Goodhand and played by MD Chris Poon with Joe Atkin-Reeves and Callum White and seem a perfect dance score.

This extraordinary dance musical feels a real team effort with each part of the creative team adding to the overall effect to create wonderful pictures which are a perfect platform for an ensemble cast of fourteen to deliver with energy, enthusiasm, and skill the routines and comedy for a magical night. There is no doubt it is worth the effort of the drive along the M4 to Sonning before 8th January for a family outing to catch this marvellous show and in case you missed it why not catch Anything Goes at the cinema on 28th November or 1st December to see two classic 1930’s musical revivals as a Christmas treat.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £55 (including 2 course meal)

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