I have a confession. I’ve never see a Fred Astaire film. That’s my disclaimer: any forthcoming appreciation of Tom Chambers is in no way a slight on the world’s most famous tap dancer.
Matthew White & Howard Jacques’ production of Top Hat opened in Leeds last Tuesday following runs in Canterbury and Edinburgh. Its opening runs were evident in the seamless production and impeccable performances all round – clearly very well-rehearsed.
When Yank ladies’ man Jerry Travers (Chambers) comes to England to perform in Horace Hardwick’s new revue he’s determined to remain free and unattached until he encounters the dynamic Miss Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen). However, mistaken identity, disguise and farce of Shakespearean proportions ensue, waylaying the pair’s course of love.
The single most stand out achievement was easily the set concept and design. A very clever use of certain components (a panelled screen downstage and a moving podium upstage) meant that the stage was effectively reinvented for every scene with no visible fuss whatsoever. Furthermore, the set changes were accompanied by delightful set pieces played out by the ensemble depicting banal yet enchanting encounters which augmented the look and feel of the 30s.
Needless to say, the costume and make up was exceptionally pretty, even if not as impactful as the set. Ginger Rogers’ iconic feathered dress (I’ve researched) was well recreated, while some particularly handsome bathing suits, halter necks and palazzo pants provided a wonderfully whimsical image of high society Venice.
Onto the performances. The whole cast displayed a pleasing chemistry which succeeding in conveying the humour and farce of the story. Chambers voice, while not the strongest for theatre, was accurately pitched and enunciated for the 30s vibe. Moreover, his tap dancing really was impressive (sorry Astaire fan). Strallen was almost entirely the opposite – slightly lacking in punch during the dance steps yet delivering strong, if a little contemporary sounding, vocals.
Acting-wise both leads were excellent – witty and endearing, they played of each other to give the audience a really well rounded performance. The supporting cast, meanwhile, were outstanding: of particular note was the emasculated Horace and the queenly Beddini. It was the man servant Bates, though, who really made the musical. With more and more outlandish disguises (what’s a musical without some cross-dressing?) and proverbs that were almost Mighty Boosh-scale absurb, Bates never failed to create wails of laughter.
Words by Claudia Rowe