This brilliantly mischievous adaptation of Sarah Waters's naughty historical novel loses it a bit towards the end
If you thought Sarah Waters’s sapphic historical bonkbuster ‘Tipping the Velvet’ was on the cheeky side, then bloody ‘ell, you should see the stage version. It’s adaptor Laura Wade’s first play in yonks – she was sidetracked by a frustrating foray into film – and director Lyndsey Turner’s follow-up project to this summer’s endlessly scrutinised ‘Hamlet’. There’s a sense of both women being agreeably demob happy for this camp postmodern romp.
Their big innovation is to style Waters’s music hall-era story as a night of actual music hall, with each scene an elaborately stylised ‘turn’ introduced by David Cardy’s affable old Chairman. And if that isn’t arch enough for you, then all the songs are knowing, oompah oompah interpretations of modern pop standards. Also there are dildos. Lots of dildos.
The story concerns the sexual awakening of Nancy (excellent young newcomer Sally Messham), a shy Whitstable oyster girl who befriends local variety star Kitty (Laura Rogers) and heads off with her to London. There Nan joins Kitty’s male impersonator act, becomes her lover, gets unceremoniously dumped, then proceeds to impersonate a male prostitute, become a rich aristocrat’s sexual plaything… and then settle down with a sensible young woman.
There will be fans of the novel who can’t stand Wade and Turner’s flip confection. Though Messham’s earnest performance gives it a human heart, it is a wantonly larky treatment liable to alienate anybody who was (ironically) hoping for a ‘straight’ version of the book. But for its first two thirds or so I loved ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and its enormously fun, lightly surreal mish mash of scenes and styles. The sex is dealt with relatively tamely (as aerial duets), but there’s a terrifically mischievous sparkle in its eye and earnest lovemaking would seem out of place amongst its gaudy setpieces – my highlight was a distraught Nancy being hung up in a meat locker while the rest of the cast break into an a cappella version of ‘Smalltown Boy’.
Still, even at its best there’s the nagging sense it lacks emotional depth. And that’s really borne out by a flat final third, where Nancy ends her wild days by entering a boring new relationship that almost like a repudiation of the daring fun she had earlier. I guess it’s what happens in the novel, but having had their fun already, you can positively sense Wade and Turner’s interest levels dropping as the show takes its demure final curtsy.