Tag Archives: Francis Goodhand

Top Hat

Top Hat

★★★★

The Mill at Sonning

TOP HAT at the The Mill at Sonning

★★★★

Top Hat

“The production values are up there with the best”

 

On its release in 1935, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film of “Top Hat” was recognised for its flaws but generally it was received positively. The New York Times praised the film’s musical numbers, but criticized the storyline, describing it as “a little on the thin side”. In retrospect it was described as a “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion”. When the musical adaptation had its world premiere a decade ago, little, if anything, had been done to thicken out the story but six more songs by Irving Berlin were added to the eight that were featured in the film. Initially playing out of town it made its home at the Aldwych Theatre for the next year and a half.

The revival at the Mill at Sonning sees it scaled down; but only in terms of the intimacy of its playing space. The production values are up there with the best, and the feel-good spectacularity (yes, that is a word) is enhanced by being so up close to the action. Nearly a century on from the golden-age of musicals, we can still feel the glow that warms our hearts when we most need it. A “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion” has never been more apt a description.

Let’s get the one and only gripe out of the way. “A little on the thin side” is putting it politely. Good, that’s out of the way. The story is based on a singular comedy of error, and spun thinner, but director Jonathan O’Boyle has worked on it with an alchemist’s skill to create theatrical gold. The story follows Broadway star Jerry Travers (Jonny Labey) who arrives in London for his West End stage debut, and then promptly falls for socialite Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay). But being a screwball comedy, things do not go to plan of course. Tremont mistakes Travers for producer Horace Hardwick (Paul Kemble) – a married man – and is therefore horrified at his advances. The themes and wisecracks are pushing their sell by date, but there is nothing that can be done about that, so we are left to face the music and dance.

From the opening bar of the overture to the closing bar of the finale we are enchanted. Jonny Labey is in his element, letting his natural energy and joy wash over us in glorious waves of smooth charisma. Billie-Kay’s cool Dale Tremont counterbalances nicely, gradually warming to Travers’ irresistible charm while never letting herself boil over. Kemble gives a glorious portrayal of put-upon producer Hardwick, matched by Julia J Nagle’s crisp, classy and cool Madge – the wife who pulls the shots. A terrific ensemble fills out the space with West End pizzazz, and the smaller roles are beefed up with real comic flair: Brendan Cull is a constant delight as Bates – Hardwick’s eccentric valet. And Andy Rees hilariously hams it up as Dale’s personal dresser, Beddini.

Everyone is a triple-threat and with Ashley Nottingham’s creative, sharp, synchronistic choreography everyone shares the spotlight. Even the scene changes are choreographed into the action. Natalie Titchener’s costumes seem spun from the golden-age itself, while Jason Denvir’s ingeniously crafted Art Deco set transports us, by sheer sleight of hand, to each location – keeping up to speed with the costume changes.

Many of Irving Berlin’s best-known numbers are given the all-star treatment here. Arranged by Musical Director Francis Goodhand it is hard to believe that he is accompanied by just two other band members (Joe Atkin-Reeves on reeds and woodwind and Callum White on drums and percussion).

Ultimately, though, the show belongs to Labey. The original film was a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Labey comfortably steps into his shoes. His infectious and delightful (often cheeky) grin follows us all the way home. We also cannot shake off the froth and the feelgood factor. Entertainment dances with absurdity and it is the perfect combination. Throw in dinner as well, and the stunning setting of the Mill, you certainly feel like you’re puttin’ on the Ritz.

 

 

Reviewed on 25th November 2022

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Andreas Lambis

 

 

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:

 

Barefoot in the Park | ★★★★ | July 2022

 

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Tell Me On A Sunday

Tell me on a Sunday

★★★

Cambridge Arts Theatre

Tell Me On A Sunday

Tell me on a Sunday

Cambridge Arts Theatre & UK Tour

Reviewed – 30th September 2021

★★★

 

“Jodie Beth Meyer steps up and her performance does not disappoint”

 

It is forty years since Marti Webb sang Tell Me on a Sunday as a TV special before the piece reached the stage as one half of Song and Dance, described then by its composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Don Black as ‘a concert for the theatre’. The work has undergone several revisions since then but is still essentially a short one-woman song cycle, the length of an LP album. The current tour usually exploits the TV popularity of singer Jodie Prenger by including a Q and A session with added musical surprises as a second half, but this performance axes this due to the indisposition of the star.

The gauze curtain, superimposed with a New York skyline, lifts to reveal a very basic 1980s apartment and behind it a row of illuminated miniature model buildings – Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Twin Towers (Designer David Woodhead). Emma enters in wedge sandals and a denim jacket. She is an unassuming girl from Muswell Hill living in New York seeking a husband and a green card. And that’s the plot, as she proceeds to sing us the story of her series of boyfriends and their inevitable breakups.

With advertised singer Jodie Prenger unavailable, understudy Jodie Beth Meyer steps up and her performance does not disappoint. The opening number Take That Look Off Your Face immediately wins over this audience and sets the standard for the evening. With her eyes twinkling and a smile upon her lips every lyric of every song is crystal clear, Jodie’s enunciation impeccable. Aided by amplification, she does not need to push her voice – this is not opera – and her style is understated rather than projected. Her high register rings out pure and glorious, a delight to listen to. The wide range required in some numbers, though – It’s Not the End of the World (if I Lose Him / he’s Younger / he’s Married), shows up some weakness at the lower end of this singer’s register.

A five-piece onstage band (Musical Director Francis Goodhand) – keys, reeds, cello, bass & drumkit – partly obscured behind the model New York skyline, provides the orchestration. Sounding a little thin at times they may have benefitted from some support from the mixing desk, but it is delightful nonetheless for this music to be performed live.

Director Paul Foster moves Emma naturally around the small set, sometimes seated, sometimes not. She goes off stage between some numbers to reappear in a change of costume. There are numerous props for her to handle – a handbag to rummage in, a floppy hat (with an unintended problematic brim), letters to read and write, a bottle of whisky. On occasions, this incessant fiddling is all rather too busy and some further static moments would have been beneficial.

The four Letters Home to England document the character’s advances in her life and provide some humorous moments much enjoyed by this audience. Other highlights in Jodie’s performance are the sensuousness she shows within The Last Man in My Life and some deliciously sleazy movement in Sheldon Bloom. Both could have been pushed further, along with some greater show of anger in Let Me Finish and Let’s Talk About You. The title song is the standout song of the evening and Jodie smashes it, sobbing through the lyrics whilst maintaining beautiful musicality.

If the largeish audience is disappointed that the intended Jodie is not available, they do not show it and after this short one-half of an evening would happily have welcomed the replacement Jodie back onto the stage for more of the same.

 

Reviewed by Phillip Money

Photography by Tristram Kenton

 


Tell me on a Sunday

Cambridge Arts Theatre until 2nd October then UK tour continues

 

Previously reviewed at this venue this year:
Copenhagen | ★★★★ | July 2021
Absurd Person Singular | ★★★ | September 2021

 

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