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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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Menier Chocolate Factory


Menier Chocolate Factory

Reviewed – 8th March 2022



“You’ll leave the show feeling as though you’ve been to a rather wonderful party full of funny and charming people”


Past, present and future come together in a magnificent show by Maria Friedman and Friends at the Menier Chocolate Factory. It’s true that the music and songs of Legacy are a reminder of what we’ve recently lost, sadly. But in Legacy, Maria Friedman has assembled a company of singers and musicians to celebrate that past — and to give us a tantalizing peek into the future. As the show proceeds, we meet a dazzling line up of both experienced performers, and young singers making their stage debut. Above all, Legacy is a sing your heart out tribute to the songs of Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand and Stephen Sondheim. The enthusiastic audience lapped it all up and begged for more.

Legacy is not just a great night out for fans of good music. In between the singing, and one great number by the band alone, Maria Friedman treats the audience to anecdotes about her life in musical theatre, including her memories of the men whose songs she sings, and whom she knew well. She connects with her audience easily — she’s full of warmth and self-deprecating humour. And she’s generous — not only in her introductions of the other performers on stage, but also the way in which she brings the audience into the show. Don’t be surprised if, on the night you visit, that’s literally what she does. On the night I was there, Friedman enthusiastically welcomed on stage Marvin Hamlisch’s widow Terre Blair. You’ll leave the show feeling as though you’ve been to a rather wonderful party full of funny and charming people.

The programme doesn’t give a completely accurate picture of what audiences will see on any one particular evening. Instead, Legacy puts together a number of well known numbers and reserves the right to add, or omit, to those on the list. The same holds true for the performers. What doesn’t change is the presence of Friedman herself, accompanied by the talents of long time friends Ian McLarnon and Matthew White. They are ably supported by stand out newcomers Desmonda Cathabel and Alfie Friedman. Friedman has not only inherited his mother’s talent — he brings something extra that is all his own. The band is superb, led by Theo Jamieson on piano, with Paul Moylan on double bass, and Joe Evans on drums. Legacy is a lively evening that modulates between boisterous ensemble numbers such as Hamlisch’s “I Hope I Get It”; an unusually upbeat “Windmills of Your Mind” (Legrand), to quieter, more intimate numbers such as “Old Friends” (Sondheim). And on this particular evening, as a tribute to International Women’s Day, Maria Friedman added a beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

If you’ve never been to the Menier Chocolate Factory, don’t hesitate to make Maria Friedman and Friends’ Legacy a reason for a first visit to this warm and welcoming venue. Bring some friends of your own. They’ll thank you.



Reviewed by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Nobby Clark



Menier Chocolate Factory until 17th April


Recently reviewed at this venue:
Brian and Roger | ★★★★★ | November 2021
Habeas Corpus | ★★★ | December 2021


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