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FeaturedMusicalReviewSouth East

Top Hat – Mill at Sonning

Reviewer: John Cutler

Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin

Book: Howard Jacques and Matthew White

Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

In the end it is the songs that matter in the Mill at Sonning’s terrific revival of Top Hat. The performances, particularly Jonny Labey as Broadway star Jerry Travers, are vivid and effortlessly appealing. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography: tap, tap and more tap, interrupted by ballroom, soft-shuffle, and a snatch of flamenco, is impressively vigorous. Designer Jason Denvir’s green, pink, and yellow art deco set: triangles, zigzags, chevrons, and Marion Dorn-style flooring, is cluttered but clever. Natalie Titchener’s velvet and satin costumes in a palette of crimson, gold, turquoise, and green are gorgeous. But is it Irving Berlin’s timeless and memorable songs that make this production so eminently watchable.

Puttin’ On the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Isn’t This a Lovely Day and of course Top Hat, White Tie & Tails. All instantly recognisable and perfectly executed by the unseen musical director Francis Goodhand (his minuscule band performs two floors up in a rehearsal room). Last Christmas’s hottest dinner-theatre ticket is back, just as bold, bright, and uplifting as before.

Top Hat’s storyline groans like a creaky old boiler firing up for winter. It is 1935. Great White Way singing star Travers has been enticed to the West End to pull some punters in to the struggling theatre owned by Horace Hardwick (a bumbling and buffoonish Paul Kemble who sensibly sits out a couple of the more taxing tap routines). Ensconced in a suite at the glamourous Hotel Excelsior, Travers takes to late night tap rehearsal, much to the chagrin of the glamorous model Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay) trying to sleep in the room below. Storming up the stairs to complain, Tremont, platonic partner to flamboyant Italian fashion designer Beddini (Andy Rees) finds herself strangely attracted to the wealthy, handsome and talented celebrity. Who wouldn’t be?

A cab ride to the park the next day sees the couple kiss. But a case of mistaken identity so daft it beggars belief threatens to strangle the budding romance at birth. Cue a romantic chase half-way across Europe, a botched wedding, and an overlong second half. There is not much tension here, aside from who is going to order the next Horse’s Head cocktail, but you are here for the songs, remember.

Mindful of the daffy story no doubt, Howard Jacques and Matthew White’s book does not take itself too seriously. The plot meanders forward unhurriedly, and the fluffy and forgettable jokes (“What do you do with a wife of 40? Change her for two twenties”) feel like fillers while we wait patiently for the next song and dance routine. Thankfully there is never long to wait.

The perma-grinning Labey, whose middle-American accent has the bass tone set to John Wayne-style maximum, stands out as the slightly creepy Travers. Looking an awful lot more comfortable here than headlining in the recent unadventurous Rehab: The Musical, Labey sings like a young John Barrowman and reveals a talent for unimpeachable tap. Julia J Nagle is great as Hardwick’s boozy and cold-blooded wife Madge, as is Brendan Cull as the family butler Bates, whose implausibly nasal voice sounds like a Guildford-born Alan Bennet on steroids. Rees’s comic-turn as the sharp-suited, spats-wearing, and altogether grandiose Beddini gets the laughs, even if his accent feels like it is sourced a little closer to Barcelona than Rome.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s fluid direction makes the most of the Mill’s intimate (let’s be honest, tiny) stage. Just occasionally it feels like there too much going on for the cast of 14 to fit comfortably in the space available. Allowing the action to periodically spill off into the auditorium helps, but the trade-off involved in fitting such a ‘big’ show into such a small area shows. But you are here for the songs, remember.

Runs until 30 December 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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