Lyric's Tipping the Velvet suffers from muddled direction, says Penny Flood
Funny, witty, good to look at, saucy, sexy and based on an award winning book, this dramatisation should have everything going for it but in the event, it falls strangely flat.
It's the story of Nancy, a daughter of oyster fishing folk, who discovers her sexual identity as she becomes obsessed by Kitty (Laura Rogers) , a male impersonator at the local music hall.
Nancy is played by Sally Messham in an outstanding performance that sees her go from star struck teenage innocent to a West End stage star in a double act with Kitty and the world at her feet.
But nothing lasts forever and Kitty marries a man, abandoning Nancy who has to scrape a living as a sex worker. From there she becomes a society sex toy until she's thrown back on the street finally finding, love, happiness and fulfilment in Bethnal Green Labour Party.
The story is told in musical hall fashion, harking back to the BBC programme The Good Old Days, for those who are old enough to remember, with David Cardy as the tireless chairman with his magic gavel whipping us through Nancy's life. He's knowing, naughty, bawdy and funny with lots of sly nods and winks.
It's not a musical but there is plenty of music, a mix of the old and modern. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of London Calling with Champagne Charlie in the train scene.
But the play as a whole doesn't quite work. It's bitty with the significant points in Nancy's life told in a series of vignettes, each one heralded by a bash of the gavel and, because of the over enthusiastic direction which borders on the self indulgent, some work better than others.
There's too much going on, the direction combined with the bitty script delivers a muddle of ideas which get in the way of the narrative. The Lyric is a lovely modern theatre with lots of smashing props and gizmos but, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. The aerial sex scenes are a case in point. Once is exhilarating, twice is overkill.
At three hours it's too long but the end is worth the wait as Nancy leads a march for women's rights singing a feminist version of These Boots are Made For Walking, accompanied by an impromptu ukulele orchestra.
And yes, they do explain what Tipping the Velvet means.
Tipping the Velvet continues at the Lyric Hammersmith until October 24. Book tickets online or call the box office on 020 8741 6850.
October 2, 2015