Tipping The Velvet
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Until November 14
CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
Until November 14
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Such is the double bind of sexism and homophobia that the lives, past and present, of lesbians are rarely explored on the stage. All the better, then, that Laura Wade has written this superb, new theatre adaptation of Sarah Waters’s historical novel Tipping The Velvet.
Waters’s book about the travails of young, working-class lesbian Nancy Astley in late-19th century London has been adapted as a drama before, for the BBC TV series of 2002. However, from the opening moment of this excellent co-production by the Royal Lyceum and the Lyric, Hammersmith, it’s clear that Wade’s version is pure theatre.
Young Nancy’s life is transformed, from Whitstable oyster girl to theatre dresser, when she is taken into the employ of her idol, the music hall male impersonator Kitty Butler. Her progress, through the ecstatic highs and anguished lows of love and life in London, including more than a brush with bourgeois decadence (think a lesbian Bullingdon Club), is decidedly Picaresque.
The beauty of both Wade’s adaptation and director Lyndsey Turner’s production is that they find a wonderfully inventive theatrical language for such an episodic tale. The Chairman (David Cardy, all fake bonhomie), the music hall narrator who guides us through the story, is the personification of meta-theatre.
There are excellent performances throughout, not least from Sally Messham, who carries off Nancy’s combination of vulnerability, resilience and rage with admirable aplomb. The set and costume designs are top notch, too, reflecting the starkly contrasting environs of Nancy’s journey.
However, it is the musical score, 20th and 21st-century rock and pop songs given the Victorian music hall treatment by a fine live band, that really gives the production its distinct identity. Every track, from Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy (as Nancy hangs from a meat hook in Smithfield) to I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges (when our heroine is in the gilded cage of the sexually domineering Diana), is sharply appropriate to the narrative moment.
Impressively original and constantly compelling, Turner’s production continues the Lyceum’s remarkable run of hit shows.
The Choir, the new musical theatre piece by actor-writer Paul Higgins and singer-songwriter Ricky Ross (of Deacon Blue fame), seemed poised to be a hit, too. Indeed, so it might prove, but I have my doubts.
Often neatly observed, sometimes very funny, Higgins’s story takes us into the world of a new community choir in Wishaw. Established by Khalid, an Iraqi surgeon from the local hospital, the choir attracts a decidedly diverse group, from a former Tory councillor to, somewhat improbably, a member of the track-suited fraternity.
Ross has written some very nice songs, and they are played and sung beautifully by the cast. However, whether any of them are memorable enough to make the show the success that co-producers Ambassador Theatre Group are hoping for is another matter.
In theatrical terms, the show suffers from Higgins’s attempt to give almost equal weight to all 12 characters. The sudden, melodramatic collapse of the choir into all-encompassing acrimony is about as plausible as an assurance from George Osborne.
Relationship breakdown, newborn romance, class antagonism, single parenthood, an ex-con seeking redemption: the play simply bites off much more than it can chew.
Played out on Tom Rogers’s convincing-but-inflexible municipal hall set, the piece is big-hearted for sure. However, its humanism runs headlong into sentimentality.
The saccharine mass confession with which the characters make their peace is very hard to swallow. It’s like a well-intentioned child’s dream of conflict resolution.
All of which is a pity, because director Dominic Hill has an excellent cast (including Ryan Fletcher, who is brilliant as former prisoner, Donny).
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 8, 2015
© Mark Brown