Ever since the glorious production of Lend me a Tenor closed at the Gielgud last summer, I’ve been a firm fan of 1930s farcical musicals with antique set designs and a classic score. Matthew White’s Top Hat fits this description perfectly, complete with tap-dancing bellhops, and even an ex Tenor cast member to boot (John Stacey). Needless to say, within the first 5 minutes, I was hooked.
Despite this being a musical based entirely on the 1935 film, I had no idea what to expect. Similar to most people in their late twenties, I saw the film as a teenager but could barely remember it, except for the more famous tracks ‘Let’s Face the Music & Dance’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’. On further inspection of the audience I quickly realised I was in the minority, with 80% being 50+. However, this should by no means prevent anybody, younger or otherwise, from giving this show a chance, even if you aren’t familiar with the songs or storyline, you’ll be enthralled from beginning to end.
Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen, play Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont respectively, two Americans who meet at a swanky London hotel during Travers’ run in a West End show. After an initially hostile first meeting, the couple slowly start to discover more about each other, during which some hilarious misunderstandings ensue. Chambers opens act one with an astounding tap number, proving his natural abilities, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a very pleasing voice. His accent is dubious at times, but the way he moves is effortless and at one point partnered by a hat stand, which is particularly impressive.
As wonderful as Chambers is in the role, Summer Strallen is surely the true star of the show. It’s not very often that an actor can immediately captivate an audience on stage before they’ve even spoken, but not every actor is Summer Strallen. Her characterisation of Dale is spot on, a cheeky yet likeable, quick-witted bombshell who takes no prisoners. I was particularly struck by her flawless accent and also her vocals, which aren’t given enough opportunity to shine as Chambers mostly leads.
A special mention must go to Ricardo Afonso, better known for his role as Galileo in We Will Rock You. Afonso’s Spanish, and somewhat camp, fashion designer is quite a departure from the angsty adolescent and thankfully wows the audience with an operatic solo, displaying some genius comedic timing. Other secondary characters, Marge and Horace Hardwick played by Vivian Parry and Martin Ball, are also given the chance to take centre stage in a charming duet.
The first act is short, being just an hour long (during previews) and flies by, but works well. An extra half hour of various tap dancing numbers would have been too much, and the fact that the relationship between Jerry and Dale is only just starting to establish itself means that the interval commences when the audience are just beginning to want more. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it left me on the edge of my seat.
Top Hat is a beautifully balanced mix of humour, farce and breath-taking, tap-dancing routines all rooted in Irving Berlin’s wonderful score. Chambers and Strallen do Fred and Ginger proud, so if you want to be transported back to a time of fun and furiously, phenomenal tap sequences, head to the Aldwych Theatre as fast as your spats can carry you.
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By Caroline Cronin @CazCronin
Booking until 26th January 2013
Aldwych Theatre, London, WC2.