Tipping the Velvet – Review

Some muddled hyperbole, almost worthy of Leonard Sachs as MC in “The Good Old Days” could sum up Laura Wade’s highly imaginative adaptation of Sarah Waters’ chick-lick “Tipping the Velvet” – a rumbustious, riotous romp of totally distilled theatricality, which takes the novel, spins it in the air, hangs it on a meat hook and adds an archaic, anachronistic soundtrack.

David Cardy is the man with the gavel, the top-hatted Cockney Chairman, who sits near the audience, parts the red velvet curtains, and bangs said gavel down on an amusing short history of our theatre. His gavel stops at Victorian music hall and leads us to the series of vignettes that tell the tale of Nancy, an ingenue oyster seller from Whitstable and her love for Kitty, a short-haired, trouser-suited theatrical sensation of the day. We see Nancy night after night watch Kitty’s act through star struck eyes. “I’m a Man” purrs Kitty (Laura Rogers) in a deliciously low key version of the Spencer Davis number, and that this Victorian act is using 20th century music is part of the conceit: we become the Victorian audience, and these are our popular songs. The seductive Kitty takes Nancy off to London where her flowering and deflowering unfold. There is some (literally) acrobatic sex, her own music hall success with Kitty, rejection in love, a change in fortune, and gradual moral degradation.

Sally Messham in her first lead role develops the character of Nancy to Nan with impressive panache. She too can swagger in a soldier’s uniform and be an overnight success, before life leads her to the squalor of prostitution on some shadowy heath, and the degradation of being a sex slave to a decadently imperious Mayfair Sapphic. Along the way there are some great musical set pieces – the swinging singing carcasses hanging in a Smithfield abattoir, the line-up of sex customers who are coaxed into “organ” music, the medley of melodrama that a destitute Nan uses to manipulate her way into the home of a social reformer.
There is quite a change of tone towards the end as we move from sex to sexual politics. Nan gets caught up in the socialist movement and her final flowering comes with a ukelele, a feminist speech, and a rousing version of “These Boots are Made for Walking”. Sounds confusing? It’s not – it’s fun and it’s funny and in the end the indecent and worthwhile win through. The gavel is firmly taken into Nan’s hand for her to beat out her own future.

This splendid work was created at the Lyric theatre in London in a co-production with Edinburgh’s Lyceum. Under the direction of Lyndsey Turner, with sumptuous stage design by Lizzie Clachan this piece never lets us forget that this is theatre, this is spectacle, filtered through the commentary of Chairman. Nowadays of course we would just say Chair – without the man.


Lyceum theatre until November 14th.

For tickets  and information contact www.lyceum.org.uk  or phone the Box Office on 0131 248 4848


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