Certain adaptations naturally invite comparisons to the original work. It’s impossible to watch The Mill at Sonning’s effervescent production of Top Hat without the classic 1935 movie casting a long shadow. It was the fourth of nine films featuring the legendary dance pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
A screwball musical-comedy, it sees Jerry Travers, an American professional dancer who is to perform in a show in London, rehearsing a tap routine in his hotel room. This racket wakes society girl Dale Tremont in the room below. When she furiously heads to his room to complain, a romantic comedy of errors across Europe begins.
While no-one can hope to compare with Fred Astaire, Jonny Labey dazzles as Jerry Travers. With matinée-idol good looks and a mega-watt charm, Labey oozes style and sophistication in the role. His dancing is sublime. His tap work is hypnotically good, sharing that light airiness that Astaire possessed. His hand shaping is truly beautiful – something that can be appreciated in the intimate space of The Mill at Sonning. It is joyous to be able to enjoy such nimble footwork that close.
Labey’s singing voice has a velvety lower register that is perfectly suited to the repertoire of Irving Berlin songs. The show supplements the film’s soundtrack with some of Berlin biggest hits, borrowed from his other musicals, including Puttin’ On the Ritz and Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Exuding star quality, he crafts a strong connection with the audience. He has a twinkle in his eye to match his twinkle toes.
Billie-Kay is the epitome of a glamorous leading lady. He deportment is breathtaking as she sports a spectacular array of beautiful outfits. We don’t know what budget costume designer Natalie Titchener had, but every piece in Dale Tremont’s wardrobe looks a million dollars. For Cheek to Cheek, she wears a coo-inducing feathered gown in homage to the notorious costume that earned Ginger Rogers her nickname of “Feathers”.
Billie Kay dances gracefully but there is something a little placed about her movement. Added to this, she has an unfortunate blankness to her facial expression when she dances. Compared to the exuberance and infectious joy of the whole ensemble when tapping, her restraint gives the impression of a hauteur that is not right for Dale’s character. The only disappointment of this outstanding production is the chemistry between the two leads, with their differing energies, is lacking.
The plot (a term used loosely here) is as insubstantial as candyfloss. But who doesn’t like candyfloss? Paul Kemble, Julia J Nagle, Brendan Cull and Andy Rees (as Horace, Madge, Bates and Beddini) attack the comic roles with gusto and play the laughs with such a camp abandon, they are impossible to resist their comedy of errors.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps the show fast moving, the action bubbling away like a glass of champagne. Jason Denvir‘s deco set, all chevrons and Egyptian embellishments, evokes the bewitching allure associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood movies. The period detail and aesthetic he has achieved is nothing short of perfection.
A glamorous soufflé of entertainment, this production of Top Hat delivers the perfect dopamine hit for these dark days. A charismatic leading man, beautiful dancing, a wonderful ensemble and the gorgeous songs of Irving Berlin – what can we say? We’re wild about you!
This effervescent production stays sparkling until the last drop – The Recs gives it a decadent ★★★★★ (5 stars)