Unfortunately I have never read Sarah Waters’ novel, however I clearly remember the BBC adaptation and the whisperings among the playground (I was still at school) of this risqué lesbian drama. Now thirteen years later, Waters’ story of the triumphs and destructions of love has been adapted for the stage by Laura Wade (Posh) at the Hammersmith Lyric.
Joined by Posh director Lyndsey Turner, this latest production couldn’t be further from the sentimentalities and soppiness of the BBC drama. For a start, Victorian London has been given a contemporary makeover with the addition Prince’s Kiss, Spencer Davis Group’s I’m a Man and even a snippet of Miley Cyrus playing in the music halls. However the modernisations are flawlessly intertwined and Turner creatively embraces the setting of a theatre to stage the fun and fizz of the variety shows, where a young ‘oyster girl’s’ affections for a handsome, male-impersonating Kitty (Laura Rogers), starts a journey of self-discovery.
Nancy Astley’s (Sally Messham) giddy crush bowls over into love and she follows an ambitious Kitty from the shores of Whitstable to the bright lights of London and soon finds herself in Kitty’s arms, not only in their onstage double act but also in the bedroom. However Nancy’s whirlwind romance ends with the bitter taste of betrayal and plunges her into the dark underworld of Soho.
Jaded by love, a lavish Diana Leatherby, played sensationally by Kirsty Besterman, provides the right amount sexual passion for Nan’s stained lust, and offers her a life of luxury in return for pleasure. Nancy becomes an object of Diana’s desire, a prized possession amongst her raunchy ‘toy box’ and the relationship ends violently. But this is a triumphant tale, and Nancy learns the simplicity of love and to just be loved in the form of socialist Florence (Adelle Leonce).
It’s hard to conceive that Tipping the Velvet is Sally Messham’s stage debut as the vulnerable yet budding Nancy Astley. It’s not a shy role and Messham goes full throttle with high energy and charm, she’s hugely loveable. This is so much more than a ‘coming out’ story and she draws you into her unimaginable adventure and it’s a dazzling ride.
With a risky and provocative tale to tell, Turner’s approach takes a little getting used to with humour flooding some of the drama – an erotic moment cleverly illustrated through the use of suspended circus acts often caused a titter instead of poignant climax. However once you embrace the playful and charming essence of the Victorian music halls, you realise Turner has achieved something rather creative and clever with a distinctive nod to the era that is effortlessly interwoven. Particularly with David Cardy as the cockney Chairman narrating us through the story complete with striking gavel.
At nearly three hours long, it feels slow in places but with the parts that sizzle and sparkle I’m sure that Tipping the Velvet will quickly become one of the hottest theatre tickets in town and will hopefully see a transfer to the West End.
Reviewed by Rebecca Usher
Photo: Johan Persson
Tipping the Velvet runs until Saturday 24th October at the Lyric Hammersmith. Click here for tickets