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Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith – ‘playful, but frustrating’

Sally Messham and Laura Rogers in Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Johan Persson Sally Messham and Laura Rogers in Tipping the Velvet at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s a queer one, this. Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ celebratory and celebrated novel is not just a straight reworking of the book on stage, rather an endeavour to do something more inherently theatrical. The production, which reunites Wade with the director Lyndsey Turner, her collaborator on Posh, takes the history and traditions of music hall and mashes them together with something altogether more modern. Music, comedy, circus and illusion are all thrown into the mix. There’s even a cheeky little nod to previous Lyric production Three Kingdoms.

Master of Ceremonies David Cardy narrates the story of Nancy, an oyster girl from Whitstable who falls hard and deep for Kitty, a male impersonator and music hall star, before taking to the boards and becoming a star herself. The songs they perform are not music hall numbers, but rather more recent: Prince and the Pet Shop Boys, a little bit of Miley Cyrus, a dash of Bonnie Tyler.

This strapping on of popular song is an extension of the witty a capella interludes Turner inserted into Posh. There’s a sense of playfulness and fun running through the production that results in some memorable images including a gallery of singing pigs and a row of what can only be termed hope-and­-glory holes which Nancy services during her time as a renter.

But entertaining as all this is, it struggles to sustain itself over three hours and it’s coupled with an odd remoteness of tone: it’s hard to get invested in Nancy’s story, or to grasp the all-consuming nature of her love for Kitty, when it’s reduced to a series of skits and songs, when it’s constantly interrupted by the falling of the curtain.

Sally Messham – making her professional stage debut as Nancy – gives a performance of real charm; she’s a bright, winning presence, versatile of voice and suitably chameleonic – there’s a subtle hardening to her manner as life takes its toll on Nancy. When she gets a speech to sink her teeth into, when extolling the sensual pleasure of oyster-eating for example, she absolutely owns the stage. But she gets rather too few of these moments, the bittiness of the staging doesn’t allow for it.

There’s strong support too from the exquisite Kirsty Besterman, as a wealthy woman with a cupboard full of sex toys, and Adelle Leonce as good-hearted, socialist campaigner, Florence.  But while there is something thrilling about this filling of the stage with lesbians, this insistence on visibility, the production feels oddly muted at times. This is in large part due to having a man narrate Nancy’s story. Even though Wade does eventually address the question of voice, of ownership, and even though this ends up being part of the point the production is making, it still feels a bit timid, almost like an afterthought.

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An inventive and playful, if frustratingly bitty, reworking of Sarah Waters’ iconic novel