Tipping the Velvet

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSally Messham (Nancy Astley) and Laura Rogers (Kitty Butler)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSally Messham (Nancy Astley) and Adele Leonce (Florence Banner)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSally Messham (Nancy Astley) and company

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.

Average User Rating

4.7 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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Tipping the Velvet.  Ah. Err, hmm...  It's the sort of play that you walk out of and wonder what exactly you've just witnessed for two and a half hours.  Not necessarily in a negative sense, but it is pretty 'out there'.  

The first half definitely draws you in with the questionably innocent Nan character and the unfolding relationship between her and the much bolder Kitty.  Stunning aerialist displays replace overt sexual encounters in a beautiful & artistic way, but there are lots of gentle hints of whats to come.

The second half bulldozes through the metaphorical watershed and hits you with all manner of eroticism.  Tastefully done, but nonetheless obvious.  This is supplemented with gentle humour and a seamless blend of modern symbolism into the Victorian setting, throughout.  Fitting 'Wrecking Ball' by Miley Cyrus into a musical montage by Victorian socialists is something I will be marveling at for some time.


Tipping the Velvet at the Hammersmith Lyric is a witty delight.  A clever adaptation of Sarah Waters' Victorian novel, the music hall setting is used in the inventive narration to provide bawdy, intelligent, and hilarious viewing. It is difficult not to sing along at times, especially during the rousing feminist rendition towards the end.  Cheeky and fun, this show makes for a fantastic and enjoyable night out. 


Ever wondered what a Baz Luhrmann directed gender-swapped version of Tom Jones would be like? Wonder no more! This hugely enjoyable and amazingly inventive version of Sarah Waters' picaresque blockbuster novel is a great example of how a theatrical adaptation can shift gears whilst still staying true to the spirit of the source material. Cleverly invoking the Victorian music hall experience, the production vividly recreates the dizzying spin of Nan's adventures starting with her jaunt into the music halls of London; into the decadently depraved high society hijinx of the lesbian upper-classes of Piccadilly; and finally into Bethnal Green and into socialism and activism. The anachronistic use of contemporary pop music and the cohesive and immersive production design all combine with strong performances for an excellent night out. Hopefully this gets a deserved West End transfer!