Musical Mid-Air Lesbian Love Affairs

Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith ★★★★☆

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 31 months ago
Musical Mid-Air Lesbian Love Affairs Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith 4
Sally Messham as Nancy Astley and Laura Rogers as Kitty Butler. Photo by Johan Persson

Lesbians! Having sex! In mid-air! Got your attention? Good, because here’s why a ticket to the stage version of Tipping The Velvet may soon be one of 2016’s hottest West End tickets and not (just) for its saucy premise.

When oyster seller Nancy Astley (Sally Messham) falls for a “masher” (or male impersonator) that she sees at her local music hall, it sets in motion a journey of self-discovery which takes her from her humble Whitstable origins to the bright lights of London. Along the way, she encounters deep passion, kinky lust and a peculiar form of prostitution.

So far, so Fifty Shades Of Yawn, especially for those who have already read Sarah Water’s book or seen the TV series based on it. The real treat to Laura Wade’s adaptation is how the music hall traditions are not just an early plot device but the very essence of the whole play. A prime example is the character of the Chairman who directs onstage affairs from his offstage seat, driving the narrative forward with a wooden gavel and cheeky wit. His bawdy banter aimed at everyone in the room. Breaking the fourth wall on this scale is frowned upon in modern theatre but here it works brilliantly in engaging the attention.

Other aspects of the music hall show a similar sense of invention and verve. Scenes are often accompanied by an impromptu orchestra formed by cast members who switch between the stage and the pit. Anachronistic pop songs from the likes of Prince and Miley Cyrus are thrown in to hilarious effect. When not providing melodies, most of the actors are seen in multiple roles in much the same way vaudevillians would play different characters over an evening. There’s even a rousing singalong finale — what could be more music hall than that?

The stage design and direction are eminently commendable, at least for a pacy and vivid first half enlivened by singing pig heads, exploding penises and deft circus routines-cum-sex scenes. The second half, though, lags badly in places with the final third featuring a distinct dearth of inventiveness and pace. At three hours long (which includes a twenty minute interval), the play is a tad too lengthy for its own good. The acting is of a decent quality with a young cast featuring many fresh faces — this is Messham’s first role since graduating this year — but the only real standout is veteran David Cardy as the Chairman.

The Lyric has had success in the past with productions transferring to larger stages. If the outrageously average Ghost Stories (which also, coincidentally, featured Cardy) merited a move to the West End, Tipping The Velvet more than deserves its upcoming trip north to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and more besides. If this production doesn't pop up in a Central London venue sometime soon, we’ll eat your hat.

Tipping the Velvet will run at the Lyric Hammersmith until 24 October, before moving to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 28 October — 14 November. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.

Last Updated 01 October 2015