The Mill at Sonning - Top Hat
16th October 2021 to 8th January 2022
Review from The Times.
Plenty of vim and heart in this Irving Berlin revival
Some of us still pine for the days when Ian Marshall Fisher’s semi-staged Lost Musicals seasons provided a chance to revisit vintage shows that hadn’t been seen in the West End since the dawn of time. One of the abiding lessons of those revivals was just how much wit and sophistication was crammed into musicals that many modern-day critics, raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical drama, tend to dismiss as frivolous.
With Cole Porter’s glorious Anything Goes still pulling in the crowds at the Barbican, Jonathan O’Boyle’s celebration of the songs of Irving Berlin arrives at the right moment. It may not be able to compete in terms of pure spectacle — the Mill at Sonning’s modest stage barely has room to accommodate a gondola, let alone an ocean liner — but this production has plenty of vim and heart.
The material itself is a bit of a hybrid. The original inspiration is, of course, the classic 1930s RKO film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but the stage version — adapted by Howard Jacques and Matthew White with a sprinkling of extra numbers including Let’s Face the Music and Dance — did not see the light of day until a decade ago, when it enjoyed a run at the Aldwych Theatre in London. (Strictly winner Tom Chambers took the Astaire role then.)
There’s no need to linger over the intricacies of a storyline involving a Broadway hoofer and mistaken identity. Suffice to say that Jack Butterworth and Billie-Kay make a winning couple entangled in an on-off tap-dancing romance set in London and Venice. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is at its most assured in the ensemble sequences, while Jason Denvir’s set has a touch of art deco elegance. Paul Kemble and Tiffany Graves are excellent value as the good-hearted but fumbling impresario Horace Hardwick and his imperious, sharp-tongued wife, Madge. Delme Thomas’s haughty Italian dress designer Beddini may be a caricature but it’s delivered with brio. Brendan Cull pops up time and again as a valet who fancies himself as an undercover agent.
The comic interludes come thick and fast, and whenever there’s the possibility of a lull in the action, along comes another song of the calibre of Cheek to Cheek or Latins Know How. Berlin’s genius is irrepressible. What’s more, the crossed lines are all untangled in a second half that is actually more persuasive than that of Anything Goes. All credit to the arranger Francis Goodhand, musical director Chris Poon and sound designer Chris Whybrow for drawing such a hearty noise from a skeletal band that, I am told, is actually located three floors upstairs in the wardrobe department.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Tie and tails winner at Sonning’s Mill
Based on the 1935 movie, this show with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin was first shown in London in 2013. Director Jonathan Boyle talks in the programme notes about the challenges of presenting a big show in a relatively small space. Along with set designer Jason Denver he solved the problem well, extending the look of the back wall by painting the set out into the auditorium. All an illusion of course, but it did make the settings look big, opulent and colourful.
This was a lavish musical in every sense, with some first rate music, singing, dancing and acting by the entire on stage company.
The leading parts were exhilaratingly played by Jack Butterworth as Jerry and Billie Kay as Dale. They might not have looked a bit like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but both could act, sing and dance like the all-rounders they undoubtedly were.
Brendan Cull had a neat cameo part as Bates, the butler, and Paul Kemble did well as his boss, Horace Hardwick. Tiffany Graves played a fine comedy role as his wife, Madge, and enjoyed some of the best lines. When Horace complained that she only married him for the fortune his father left him, she said: “Don’t be absurd. I would have married you whoever left you the money.”
Later she said her divorce was satisfactory because she had custody of the money.
Full marks too for Delme Thomas for his hilarious caricature of a camp Italian designer, going over the top constantly to the audience’s delight.
The music of Berlin is timeless, most of the songs standards today.
This production was brightly lit, colourful, flashy in the best sense of the word, and extremely well-acted. The dancing was spectacular and the entire cast received a standing ovation.
If anybody doubts the continuing popularity of 1930s musicals like this, they need only to have looked at the full house on Thursday evening and noted audience members of every age from 18 to 80.
They were still cheering as we made for the exit door as it is a good length drive back to Newbury.
There are reviews from Musical Theatre Review("a beautiful experience... dazzling choreography" - ★★★★★); The Live Review ("spectacular performances... the whole cast amazed and impressed me with their amazing dance skills... a fantastic show that I would highly recommend seeing" - ★★★★★); Pocketsize Theatre ("a real team effort... energy, enthusiasm, and skill... a magical night" - ★★★★★); LondonTheatre1 ("an appealing and entertaining show... musical escapism at its finest" - ★★★★★).