When I found out that Tipping the Velvet was opening at the Lyceum Theatre, I immediately wanted to see it. Not because I had read the book or seen the BBC adaptation, not because the successful duo Wade/Turner was at the head of this performance, or because I had to find an event to write about for my first contribution to this blog. The reason I was drawn to seeing this performance was its theme: the coming of age of a young woman in the Victorian period. I have a soft spot for this peculiar and fascinating metamorphosis: the oh so important steps of moving from innocence to experience, transitioning from a teen to an adult. My favourites of the genre count The Catcher in the Rye and An Education amongst many others but I will now have to add to my list the brilliant stage adaptation of Tipping the Velvet.
After the success of Posh, Laura Wade (playwright) and Lyndsey Turner (director) reunite once again to offer us this exuberant and ambitious production of the novel by Sarah Waters. Whilst great power comes with great responsibility, I would also like to add that it comes with great expectations from an audience perspective. And indeed comfortably seated in the stalls on Press Night, the atmosphere in the theatre was electric and my expectations as high as the Lyceum ceiling. Wade and Turner combine their powers to achieve greatness in this production in more and less subtle ways. Coming of age is a topic that can often fall into caricature, and so is coming out. Combining both can be quite risky, but this production does them justice and explores these themes with poetry, fun and depth.
The spectator embarks on a frantic journey in the life of Nancy, a young ingénue oyster girl from Whitstable who is about to get an eye opener into who she is and the world that surrounds her. She is perfectly interpreted by the recent RADA graduate Sally Messham who refreshingly carries the whole production on her shoulders with confidence. Playing with Nancy’s fate is David Cardy, the Chairman, a ‘music hall Thor’ who toys with her life and has a firm grip on the narrative at the tip of his gavel, fast forwarding and stopping on demand. Breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience as well as with the characters on stage, he’s our only anchor through this very cinematic and fast paced exploration of Nancy’s life.
This play is all about clashes: clash of generations, of gender, of Victorian references with modern pop culture. It is through this mash up that Nancy becomes Nan King, a Music Hall starlet who falls in love for the first time with a male impersonator, Kitty Butler. Throughout the piece, the music hall numbers are intertwined with more delicate scenes, such as Nancy playing with a tuxedo wearing mannequin or the aerial acrobatics cleverly representing lesbian sex and the highly charged eroticism. The ensemble work needs a special acknowledgement as it never fails to deliver a sharp transition from one action to the next. The barbershop trio singing the merits of alcohol left me wriggling in my seat with laughter, as did the particularly ingenious scene where Nan giving prostitution a go, is seen blowing instruments through a glory hole/seaside photo board in tune with ‘God Save the Queen’. In this latter set-piece, women play men, men play men and gender and sexual boundaries get blurred in a joyful mayhem.
The peak of the evening and perhaps of Nancy’s life takes place during a political meeting when she performs a rendition of Lee Hazlewood’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ accompanied by the ensemble urging the audience to sing along about gender equality and feminism. The play is in itself a feminist manifesto to be placed back not only in the Victorian social context but also in ours. This is a production written, adapted, staged, designed and mainly acted by women. It is a celebration of women in all their beauty and differences. Yet it is through the eyes of a male character that we see Nancy’s story unfold, emphasising the objectification of women by a male dominated society.
My only criticism is that I found the second half a bit less enjoyable than the first, especially after such a flamboyant first act. Nancy becomes a sexual plaything for a posh ‘Sapphic’ and the object of love of a socialist worker, all of which felt quite rushed for the purpose of the story. The fall of Nan King and eventually Nancy’s salvation in a quick twist of fate also verge at time on stereotype. I was disappointed at yet another rendition of a modern pop song (‘I Want to be Your Dog’) and the saddest songs mix felt over the top and left me with an annoying sense of deja-vu. However, these are only small hiccups compared to the high quality of the rest of the performance. This is an uplifting production that will thoroughly entertain. Diana, the sultry lesbian dominatrix, asks Nancy during the play whether she would choose between comfort for the rest of her life or pleasure for a limited time only, and as one voice with Nancy I can confirm that this play makes me want to choose pleasure over comfort anytime.
Tipping the Velvet is running at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh until the 14th November.