Tag Archives: Howard Jacques

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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The Ladybird Heard


Palace Theatre

The Ladybird Heard

Palace Theatre

Reviewed – 17th July 2021



“a pleasurable distraction during the dog days of summer”


It’s school holidays again, and despite the pandemic, it’s the time of year when parents look around for something to do with the kids. This year, producers Kenny Wax and Matthew Gregory have answered the parental call for help with What the Ladybird Heard. The sixty minute show, now showing at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End, is based on the best selling children’s book by Julia Donaldson (story) and Lydia Monks (pictures). It’s about the right length for the kindergartner and primary school set. Bringing this well loved character and her farmyard friends to the stage is a shrewd move on Wax and Gregory’s part. What the Ladybird Heard is perfect summer material to welcome the winter pantomime and Christmas audiences back into the theatre. The cast of four (with a last minute appearance of the ASM as a policeman) has an easy and skilled connection with the audience. It’s a pleasure to watch them show off their acting, dancing and musical abilities.

That said, if there is one weakness, it is the way the story has been dramatized. There are lots of engaging touches, including the set, designed by Bek Palmer, and based on Lydia Monks’ pictures from the book. The way in which the animals are created by the actors from bits and pieces scattered randomly around is fun to watch. The fourth member of the cast, farmhand Raymond (doubling as the dastardly burglar Lanky Len), appears to be an usher randomly recruited from the auditorium, much to the audience’s delight. The songs, composed by Jolly Good Tunes, are just that. And Howard Jacques has an abundance of nice lines in his lyrics. Nevertheless, What the Ladybird Heard is, at its heart, a story about stopping a crime. The Ladybird, with her farmyard helpers, has to stop the Farmer’s prizewinning cow from being stolen by a couple of thieves. It’s a dramatic situation, with the right amount of suspense for a satisfying denouément. But the plot takes a while to get going. There’s a lot of business about introducing the story, instead of just plunging straight in. It’s also unclear whether this is going to be a new story about the Ladybird, or just a rehash of the first story in the series. There is a strong feeling that there isn’t really enough material in the book to fill sixty minutes of stage time, even with all the singing, dancing and audience participation.

Ultimately, What the Ladybird Heard works because of its cast. Director Graham Hubbard makes the most of the talents of Roddy Lynch (Farmer), Nikita Johal (Lily/Ladybird), Matthew McPherson (Hefty Hugh) and James Mateo-Salt (Lanky Len), and the team does not disappoint. From building puppets to playing musical instruments, singing and dancing, the actors are up for any challenge, and that includes managing the audience. They are particularly adept at handling the show’s educational aspect, which is all about identifying the animals and pairing them up with the appropriate animal sound—crucial to the plot. The actors also work hard at helping the audience spot the ladybird, who is as thrifty in her appearances, as she is in her words.

If you are looking for a pleasurable distraction during the dog days of summer, take your kids (or someone else’s) to What the Ladybird Heard. The Palace Theatre staff are well organized for a visit to the theatre, and that includes the hardworking front of house team who are doing their best to manage social distancing and good hygiene practices, both inside and outside the theatre.


Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by David Monteith-Hodge 


The Ladybird Heard

Palace Theatre until 29th August then UK tour continues. Details whattheladybirdheardlive.co.uk


Recently reviewed by Dominica:
Public Domain | ★★★★ | Online | January 2021
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice | ★★★ | Online | February 2021
Adventurous | ★★½ | Online | March 2021
Tarantula | ★★★★ | Online | April 2021
Stags | ★★★★ | Network Theatre | May 2021
Overflow | ★★★★★ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | May 2021
L’Egisto | ★★★ | Cockpit Theatre | June 2021
Doctor Who Time Fracture | ★★★★ | Unit HQ | June 2021
In My Own Footsteps | ★★★★★ | Book Review | June 2021
Wild Card | ★★★★ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | June 2021
Luck be a Lady | ★★★ | White Bear Theatre | June 2021
Starting Here, Starting Now | ★★★★★ | Waterloo East Theatre | July 2021


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