When I set out to review a theatre show I like to go with an open mind, so often do not research the show before I go. Or maybe I am just lazy. So as Top Hat got underway at the Theatre Royal I sat through the first half impressed by the performance on stage in front of me, but with a nagging doubt in my mind. There were one or two tiny details that just seemed – unprofessional. And they were tiny details, that you can often spot with all but the most prestigious of companies – a sticky bit of set movement, the occasional dancer checking their neighbour’s moves nervously in a busy routine.
A quick look at the programme in the interval and I realised that this was indeed an amateur show, and a hugely ambitious project for a local operatic society. Feeling slightly daft I also suddenly found myself filled with huge respect for the cast of this show. Professional shows are the product of highly skilled people who spend their lives performing, training and rehearsing their work until it is repeatably perfect, while our amateurs have to balance preparing for a show with all the busy demands of real life, work, family and daily routine. So my perception of this ensemble as a professional company is in fact a huge compliment to the skills of the producers and cast. I also realised that this was not some jaded multi-venue tour, but a local show with just one day for technical rehearsals in the auditorium before their first night in front of an audience.
Top Hat is a show that combines witty dialogue with classic song and dance routines first made famous in the film version with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and developed into a hugely successful stage show in 2011. The boy-meets-girl plot is charming if rather lacking in credible detail and sets a context for the romance between tap dance sensation Jerry Travers and glamourous model Dale Tremont.
In this show Travers is played with great precision and panache by Alex Green. Alex made his debut with the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society in 2009 but has since graduated as a professional performer. His elegant opposite number Dale Tremont is played by the engaging Kathryn White, who looks every inch the 1930s Hollywood star. Ian Chisholm is convincing as the impresario Horace Hardwick with Linda Campbell suitably imperious as his demanding wife Madge. Two characters are added to the mix for comic effect, the Italian fashion designer Beddini, played by Christopher Penn and the lugubrious yet camp butler Bates is given a wonderful twist by Adrian Wright. In the current state of social mores the role of Beddini is difficult to make acceptable – we are essentially being asked to laugh at a camp Italian stereotype – but this Beddini is rather more Joe Dolce than Rudolph Valentino and I struggled to follow his words. Wright’s Bates is a delight and he clearly enjoys adding a glut of gestures to enhance his comic one-liners.
The magic that makes this show comes from the music of Irving Berlin, with a host of tunes that have become deservedly familiar, from ‘Putting on the Ritz’ as an opener, through ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’ to ‘Lets Face the Music and Dance’. Hard not to hum along to these tunes, but the 16 strong orchestra keep the music moving in perfect time.
The Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society are just 8 years away from their centenary of public performances, so perhaps I should not be surprised by the professionalism of their work, as they have been in existence far longer than most of today’s touring musical companies. They have created a joyful and light-hearted show which while true to the original RKO movie adds a new dimension of enthusiastic humour. The Society use their funds to help support young performers through training for professional careers, so every full house at the Theatre Royal will help the stars of tomorrow achieve their dreams.
It is seven years since the original production of the stage version of Top Hat came to Norwich, with Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen as Jerry and Dale and a memorable Bates played by Stephen Boswell. It is just the right time to revive this popular show, and the Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society can feel proud that they have created a distinctive, memorable and enjoyable version of this fast paced and slick show. For the leads Alex and Kathryn I am sure that this success will be a stepping stone to many more engagements in the future, and I am sure there are one or two more future stars stepping out in this ensemble. Catch this enjoyable show, and you too will be heading for home singing and dancing all the way!
© Julian Swainson 2018
The Norfolk and Norwich Operatic Society production of Top Hat is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday. All shows at 7.30pm with a Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 2.30pm.