(Aldwych Theatre, London, currently booking until September 2013)
It’s 1935 or thereabouts and Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers), the most popular dancer on Broadway, comes to London to star in a show arranged by the impresario Horace Hardwick (Martin Ball). On his first night in town, Jerry’s exuberant tap-dancing in Horace’s hotel room disturbs the young lady staying on the floor below: the glamorous Dale Tremont (Charlotte Gooch), with whom Jerry is immediately smitten. A practised ladykiller, he romances her in the park and fills her room with flowers; but forgets to ever actually introduce himself.
Dale tries to find out who has the hotel room above hers and, on hearing that it’s Horace Hardwick’s, recoils in dismay. Horace is the new husband of her friend Madge (Vivien Parry), whom she is due to visit in Venice that weekend. Assuming that Jerry is Horace, and distressed at the thought of having flirted with Madge’s husband, Dale flees to Venice to confess to her friend, unaware that she is being tailed by Horace’s resourceful valet Bates (Stephen Boswell). Jerry and Horace aren’t far behind, the former increasingly bewildered by his beloved’s coldness towards him and oblivious to the fact that he’s never actually told her who he is. Eventually Dale decides that the only way to protect herself from ‘Horace’s’ advances is to get married to her couturier and longtime admirer Alberto Beddini (Ricardo Afonso). Will Jerry be able to get to her in time to explain the confusion, reveal his true identity and declare his love?
If you have any doubts about the correct answer to that question, then you haven’t seen enough romantic comedies. Top Hat is an old-fashioned farce at heart, a comedy of errors, with the convoluted story playing second fiddle to the songs and dance numbers. Everything about it oozes Art Deco class, from the cloche hats worn by the tap-dancing girls in the opening number, to the beautiful walls which slide around the stage to form hotel lobbies, bedrooms and reception rooms. The dancers of the company are just as talented as the leads, and I thoroughly admired the precise synchronisation of the larger numbers like Puttin’ on the Ritz and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.
Of course, at such close quarters it’s impossible not to compare it to Singin’ in the Rain. I can’t quite decide why, but I enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain more: I think because there was a stronger sense of story. Despite all the glorious farce in Top Hat, you do get the feeling that the story has been tacked onto the songs, whereas in Singin’ in the Rain the songs fit naturally within the story. There is more heart to Singin’ in the Rain, too, whereas Top Hat feels glossy, stylish and professional… but lacks soul: the fault of the musical rather than the production, I feel.
But by God it’s chic. The costumes are beautiful, especially the dress Gooch wears for Cheek to Cheek: a flowing white Grecian-styled gown with gold cords around the bodice and white feathered cap-sleeves. I had a severe case of envy over that dress – not that I would ever have occasion to wear such a thing, but perhaps I could just keep it in my wardrobe and stroke it from time to time. And that’s just one lovely dress out of many. All the men are handsome; all the women are beautiful; and the show itself is like a champagne bubble: insubstantial, but dazzling to watch.
The strongest impressions were made by three of the supporting characters. Stephen Boswell was a delight as the prim but devoted Bates, who adopts a series of increasingly marvellous disguises as he follows Dale in Venice, from cook to gondolier to dowager duchess. As Madge, Vivien Parry had almost all of the best lines and her sparring with the unequal Horace provided most of the show’s comedy. But the one who came closest to bringing down the house was Ricardo Afonso, Portuguese by birth rather than Italian, who infused Beddini with a gloriously quarrelsome passion. His performance of Latins Know How was brilliant.
Against these three comic parts, the leading pair ran the risk of looking slightly bland despite their technical talent. Charlotte Gooch has recently taken over from Summer Strallen, the original Dale, after touring the UK as Penny in Dirty Dancing. Incredibly svelte and graceful, she made the dancing look effortless, despite doing it backwards and in heels (the writers have cleverly incorporated Ginger Rogers’s classic quote into the show). Her only flaw, as far as I could see, was that on occasion she seemed to be trying to belt out her songs, when the tone of the show perhaps needed a slightly lighter, more nonchalant style.
Tom Chambers has legions of fans thanks to his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing and I suspect the TV series is responsible for the coach parties which formed a large part of the audience, mostly ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. And Chambers surely didn’t disappoint them. Until I read the programme notes I didn’t realise that he had danced extensively even before his appearance on Strictly, and in fact had already performed some Fred Astaire routines. He even choreographed the hat-stand routine in No Strings (I’m Fancy Free), which was actually one of the parts of the show which most impressed me, and he can tap-dance like a demon. But I couldn’t quite figure out his accent, which fluctuated over the course of the show. During the interval my neighbour suggested that Chambers was trying to impersonate Fred Astaire, which may very well be right; but, while giving him credit for effort, I’d rather he’d gone for a straightforward American accent which might have been slightly less distracting. Do bear in mind that Chambers is only playing Jerry until 2 February, so get your skates on if you particularly want to see him in the role.
I didn’t emerge into the street with quite the same radiant joy that I felt after Singin’ in the Rain, but Top Hat certainly added a bit of sparkle to a bitterly cold January evening. I went off to the tube station with a smile on my face, a spring in my step and the knowledge that for the rest of the week my colleagues would be listening to hummed-under-the-breath snatches of Let’s Face the Music and Dance. It’s a good thing they’re tolerant people…