Image courtesy of Johann Persson.
Based on Sarah Waters’ debut novel and adapted for the stage by Laura Wade, Tipping the Velvet, tells the tale of a Victorian love affair between two women. Having watched Kitty Butler on stage singing and dancing as a male impersonation act every night for the last week, Nancy Astley finally has her dream realised when she is invited back stage to Kitty’s dressing room. The awestruck and impulsive Nancy offers to be Kitty’s dresser and thus their relationship begins. Taking the act to London, the two, inevitably, become lovers.
As the audience settles down in the ornate Lyceum Theatre, the Chairman – commendably performed by David Cardy – comes onto the stage with his hammer of time travel, setting the mood for the remainder of the production. With his pantomime-style breaking of the fourth wall, the Chairman guides the audience through the story. His commentary is focused on the dramatic nature of this unconventional and topical – given the Victorian setting – love affair, offering the audience an insight into Nancy’s innermost thoughts.
Besides the lead actress, Sally Messham, David Cardy is one of the few members of the cast who plays only one role. With a rather small cast, the actors needed to play several parts. This is a little jarring to begin with; especially given one actress plays both Nancy’s sister and her lover, Flo. However, this develops to offer an additional – the play already being brilliantly witty – comedic aspect to the show.
There are crippling scenes of unexpected musical hilarity and an obscene yet simultaneously appropriate amount of innuendos, which were all far from subtle. This is certainly not the play for those who shy away from sexual humour and dances in corsets and strap-ons. With singing cattle and some sensual chandelier swinging, Tipping the Velvet is a far from shy performance. From the very start, the audience is encouraged to join in the action and to revel in the sensuality and humour of the play.
Lyndsey Turner (director) and Lizzie Clachan (designer) have, between them, created an atmosphere of a modern-day take on Victorian style. With interjections of bright yellow and green amongst heavily patterned backdrops, alongside the seemingly modern approach to homosexuality, Tipping the Velvet challenges the audiences pre-conceived ideas about the Victorian era, making it a much less alien culture than the one taught in school.
This theatrical adaptation of Waters’ widely successful Victorian love story has been handled tastefully and honestly. It is definitely worth catching at the Lyceum this autumn.