Top Hat, Aldwych, London
Babel, Caledonian Park, London
The Rest is Silence, Malthouse Estate Warehouse, Shoreham, West Sussex
It's hard to resist the retro-romance of Irving Berlin's tunes, fabulous dance routines and charming stars. Pity about the plot, though
Sunday 13 May 2012
Out of work and forsaken in love, Mia Farrow wanders into a cinema in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. There her Depression-era grief melts away as she's drawn in by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, dancing on the silver screen, in Top Hat.
Even, or especially, in today's recession, it's hard to resist the retro romance of Irving Berlin's tunes. The West End's new stage version of Top Hat gives you an instant lift as the orchestra launches, by way of a prelude, into "Cheek to Cheek" (arranged by Chris Walker).
Starring Summer Strallen and Strictly Come Dancing winner Tom Chambers – as the chic Dale and her go-getting pursuant, Jerry – this production is putting on the Ritz. The Art Deco hotels where he woos her are temples to luxury, all soaring white columns and gilding. The ladies swish in bias-cut satin, and the gents are, of course, dressed to the nines for "Top hat, white tie and tails".
The tap-dancing is pretty dazzling, choreographed by Bill Deamer. It's legerdepied really: from the waist up, an air of nonchalant idling, while the feet are a blur of patent leather, rapping out punctilious beats. The chorus routines sound like a crescendoing war dance with syncopated machine-guns.
But that doesn't explain why Dale doesn't run a mile from Jerry's cringeworthy chat-up lines. The screwball script often falls flat and the plot is silly. Strallen's breathy mellifluousness, between high-kicks, is more winning, and Vivien Parry is amusing as her cynical, married friend, Madge. If it's lavish you want, this adaptation has additional Berlin hits (from other films). A feelgood spectacular, although I wasn't quite in heaven.
I was more enchanted wending my way around Caledonian Park in north London where WildWorks' director Bill Mitchell (known for the Port Talbot Passion), has created Babel, a site-responsive show with actors and hoards of community performers.
Essentially, this is a rallying point for multicultural people-power. Mitchell adds a rebellious twist to the Old Testament saga wherein the folks on Earth, building a tower to reach Heaven, are punished by God, who replaces their one language with many, confusing and dividing them.
Caledonian Park's 150ft Victorian clocktower marks the spot where in 1830 a huge demonstration was staged in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Babel never spells that out, but envisages emboldened commoners reclaiming the tower from a paranoid dictator. Nigel Barrett's Alpha 1 barks orders from on high, commanding security guards to uproot a settlement of bamboo huts. There's more than a nod to the Occupy movement.
A giant eye glares from the clock face as an activist scales the tower like Spider-Man. Unfortunately, the storyline is a shambles. It's the prologue that's inspiring. Touchingly greeted at the park gates by angels – who say it's time to build a new city – the audience enter the woods to find lamplit, eerie and funny domestic scenes among the trees. A woman vacuums in the bushes, students sketch in the boughs, a blind jazzman improvises on a battered piano. Before the dictatorship drama, you're free to potter around a communal fair too, with bars, a rocking band and a swaying choir. Here you can playfully contribute to model paradises: mould flora and fauna for a Plasticine landscape; knit the fringe of an all-wool London (complete with a Fairisle Big Ben). The teenage participants were jiving in wellies as I headed home.
This barely leaves room for The Rest is Silence, a startling, experimental take on Hamlet in which dreamthinkspeak's director Tristan Sharps pens his audience in a dark hall of mirrors. Lights snap on behind the looking-glass walls, revealing multiplying, miked chambers. This is an Elsinore where everyone's a snooper.
Edward Hogg's glowering Hamlet offers few textual insights per se, but the script is reshuffled like a Rubik's Cube, so others mull over the soliloquies Hogg has scribbled in his bedroom. The set's symmetries point up how certain characters reflect others. Luminous filmic images swim over the walls and ceiling too, like dreams. Old Hamlet's eyes blaze with vengeance then regret. Bethan Cullinane's drowning Ophelia drifts overhead like a departing angel, her last breath escaping like a slow stream of pearls.
'Top Hat' (0844 847 1712) to 26 Jan. 'Babel' (020-7223 2223) to 20 May. 'The Rest is Silence' (01273 709709) to 27 May.
Kate Bassett catches Omid Djalili in What the Butler Saw
Eugene O'Neill's darkening family drama Long Day's Journey into Night is revived superbly by Anthony Page, with David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue (to 18 Aug). Bristol Mayfest (Thu to 27 May) kicks off with Belarus Free Theatre's Minsk 2011 and National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart.
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