Many times in my life I have heard the phrase: “the arts have power to transform lives”. When Nancy (Sally Messham) first goes to the Palace Theatre where she claps eyes on Kitty Butler (Laura Rogers), a Victorian music hall singer and male impersonator who wows and astounds the crowds by daring to perform in trousers (a highly controversial clothing choice for a female in that era), Nancy is mesmerised. Seeing Kitty’s act transforms Nancy’s life from one of hardship and simplicity – shucking oysters in her family restaurant in Whitstable, to being dazzled by the bright lights of theatre when her dapper idol Kitty employs her to be her personal dresser. However, those familiar with Tipping The Velvet know only too well that the effect of meeting Kitty impacts every iota of Nancy’s existence, in particular by awakening her female sexuality and desires.
When I heard that the Lyric and playright Laura Wade were adapting Tipping The Velvet, my first thought was: that’s quite a difficult text to stage, and I wonder how on earth they are going to tackle it. The creative team have taken these numerous challenges in their stride, and if anything some of the ways in which they have approached these obstacles are some of the finest and most ingenious aspects of the work. For instance, you can’t tell the story of Nancy’s gay sexual awakening without including sex scenes. However, these are far from ordinary run-of-the-mill encounters, as they all elaborately unfold while the protagonists are suspended from the ceiling and partake in some beautifully choreographed aerial work, in the form of sensual physical entanglement.
Tipping the Velvet isn’t without its faults. Personally, I found the ‘me old mucker’ Cockney-style narrator-cum-ringmaster extremely grating. His interjections are unnecessary and the garble that he uses to start and stop every scene, and to fast forward through the more mundane chapters of the book, is quite frankly irritating. In the opening scenes I found his presence quite distracting. Another trope that doesn’t hit the mark is the use of modern songs against a Victorian backdrop. Yes, I did find it amusing to hear Nancy’s rendition of ‘Wrecking Ball’ and ‘Back to Black’, but for me their inclusion is quite frankly bizarre. That said, the modern songs sung in a barbershop quartet style work well, as they are stylistically in keeping.
Without wanting to ruin Tipping The Velvet‘s innovative staging, I can safely say I have never seen a play that contains both singing pig carcasses and a crude but hilarious rendition of ‘God Save The Queen’. Our starlet and fallen angel for the evening is a tour de force – a triple threat that masters the multifaceted Nancy with gusto-filled gravitas.
At three hours long, this reviewer did find herself glancing towards her watch occasionally. It could benefit from a little shaping, but that said there are many seeds of potential that, with a few revisions and a generous sprinkling of water, mean Tipping The Velvet could grow from being a great piece of theatre into an incredible work of art in full bloom.
Tipping The Velvet is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 28 October. For tickets and more information, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo by Johan Persson.