Tapping into Hollywood: Top Hat Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Friday 26th January 2018

Not content with bringing the most famous Gene Kelly movie to the tiny Upstairs at the Gatehouse stage three years ago with Singin’ in the Rain, the team have decided to give Fred Astaire the same treatment, by bringing ‘Top Hat’ to the Highgate pub theatre stage.
The plot gets no awards for originality, and apparently even when the film came out in the 1930s, people were complaining that it was copied from a previous Fred Astaire film, ‘The Gay Divorcee’.  The story hinges on a highly improbably case of mistaken identity which, in this production, is delivered with complete conviction by the whole cast.  It’s not exactly a comedy drama masterpiece, but the combination of gorgeous songs by Irving Berlin, zinging one-liners and over the top cameo roles kept us surprisingly well-entertained.
Dance superstar Jerry Travers (no prizes for guessing who played this part in the film), comes to London to make his West End debut, and falls in love with model and socialite Dale Tremont, who unfortunately has mistaken him for his agent Horace Hardwick, who happens to be married to her friend.

Subtlety is not required from the supporting cast, and on that note Matthew James Willis delivers a full throttle performance as the vain and preening Alberto Beddini, the Italian fashion designer who is devoted to dressing Dale Tremont in the hope that one day she might let him undress her.  Samuel Haughton also has some fine comic moments as Bates, Hardwick’s valet, especially once he is given a special undercover assignment to ‘spy’ on Dale by Hardwick, who is convinced that she is out to ‘entrap’ Jerry.  More Clouseau than Poirot, he is delightfully dedicated to the task as he gets more and more out of his depth, before miraculously rescuing the situation at the end.

Darren Benedict does a very good job of portraying Hardwick, a man so put-upon that even his valet bullies him.  He spends most of the time in a state of bewilderment as his well-meant schemes go wrong and he finds himself the scapegoat for everybody else’s shenanigans.  In a well-paced performance, his frenetic anxiety gradually calms to quiet despair before he finally reaches a negotiated truce with his wife and finds a form of contentment.

Ellen Verenieks is sparkling as Madge, Harwick’s wife.  When we hear him talk about his wife, we feel sorry for her.  When we meet her in the second half, we feel sorry for him. Verenieks has some fantastic one-liners which she delivers with vicious sang-froid, but underneath the detached humour is a warmth which comes through at the end when she realises that she has more to lose than she thought.

Joshua Lay has boyish charm and the kind of boundless energy perfectly suited to a self-proclaimed sufferer of ‘tapititis’, the condition which apparently excuses him from tap-dancing all night on a wooden floor in his hotel room.  He brings plenty of pace to the dancing, although we thought he could have occasionally afforded to slow down a bit and savour the moves.  We expected Joanne Clifton to be a good dancer, having heard of her connection to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, but she really showed how an experienced and accomplished dancer could lift the mood, with a gracefulness that pervaded the smallest of movements.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that she had a lovely singing voice too, and a wonderfully warm and engaging stage presence which raised her above the typical ‘love interest’ of the day.

And now we come to our customary comments about the traverse staging (where the playing space is a narrow strip in the middle, with the audience lined up on either side), which again severely limited the ability of the 12 strong cast to really let rip with the dance numbers.  With so much talent available, it was frustrating to find that the choreography had to conform to a very small and bizarrely shaped space.  We were even starting to recognise certain moves designed to get over the limitations of the space, and although there was a raised platform at one end, this tended to be wasted.  We know the space is flexible, so we live in hope that one year Ovation productions will give the good old ‘pros arch’ layout a try.

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