Review by Daz Gale
The Mill at Sonning is always a guaranteed beautiful evening out. Their picturesque setting and stunning meal pre-show ensures you are having the time of your life before the show has even started. Though when the show itself is equally brilliant, it takes the evening up to the top level. Of the shows I have seen there in the last 12 months, I have loved none as much as Top Hat which I saw last year. Back by popular demand and with a new cast in tow, the question is would it hold up to repeat viewing? After all, it had lived in my memory for a year so could it ever live up to the high expectation my memories had?
Based on the classic movie from 1935, the stage adaptation of Top Hat is a lot more modern than you might initially expect, first debuting in 2011 and opening in the West End the following year. Telling the story of Jerry Travers who travels to Europe from America to win the heart of Dale Tremont. The course of true love never did run smooth and a case of mistaken identity causes some trouble along the way.
Full to the brim with Irving Berlin’s timeless songs, Top Hat has no shortage of instantly recognisable numbers, kicking off with ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’. Throughout the course of the show, we are treated to fantastic performances of classics including ‘Cheek To Cheek’ and ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance’. Other highlights include the brilliantly witty ‘Outside Of That. I Love You’ and ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket’. With arrangements from musical direction Francis Goodhand and sound design from Chris Whybrow, these are all performed beautifully and are fitting to the timeless nature of these songs countless generations have grown up with.
For a relatively small and unconventional theatre space, what can be achieved in set design and production value is extremely impressive. Jason Denvir’s set design is gloriously stylish, effortlessly immersing you in the 1935 setting while not feeling dated at all. Nic Farman’s beautiful lighting design and gorgeous costumes from Natalie Titchener creates a flawless visual from all aspects. Jonathan O Boyle’s perfect direction makes the whole affair feel a lot grander than the fairly intimate space we find ourselves in – a testament to not being defined by perceived limitations of surroundings and what theatre can do at its very best.
Ashley Nottinghams choreography may be complex and even busy at times but it is always a joy to witness, with the cast members definitely getting their daily step count in, having to run around the back of the audience and down the stairs on to the stage repeatedly throughout the performance. Top Hat is at its best during the big performance numbers and Ashley’s choreography brings these to life remarkably, with particular care paid to the phenomenal tap numbers – always a joy to witness when done expertly such as in this production.
This years casting is a mix of returning cast members from last year alongside some new additions. Jonny Labey joins the cast leading the pack as Jerry Travers. Firmly embracing his theatre side, Top Hat marks Jonny’s third show of the year and his second at The Mill at Sonning. A fantastic actor and brilliant dancer, he gives a perfectly charming performance as Jerry. However, his singing sometimes lets him down. While he has a perfectly pleasant voice, at times it couldn’t quite reach the necessary notes and was overshadowed by other cast members own voices.
Billie-Kay reprises her turn from last year as Dale Tremont. If she was sensational in the role last year, this year she is an absolute revelation. Flawless in every aspect of her performance, she is an absolute joy to watch in what is a truly mesmerising performance. Andy Rees is wonderfully over the top as Beddini while Brendan Cull gives a masterclass in a comedic performanceas Bates - a farcical character who you won’t forget in a hurry. Paul Kemble delights as Horace, joined by Julia J. Nagle as Madge. Together, they have the kind of chemistry you can only dream of from a marriage where you both love to hate each other, and provide some of the highlights of the entire show.
The cast are completed by a wonderful ensemble of Hannah Amin, Joe Boyle, George Deller, Nathan Elwick, Gabriela Gregorian, Leah Harris, Reece Kerridge and Greta McKinnon. Together, they really bring the show to life and fill every inch of the space with their immeasurable talent. This is particularly noticeable on the big dance numbers which they all perform exuberantly.
It’s safe to say I loved Top Hat every bit as much this year as I did last year. New cast members have brought something fresh to the proceedings while the returning cast members gave a wonderful sense of familiarity. More assured in the performance, the whole thing feels a lot more polished now. With fantastic performances, glorious set design and an admirable production value, Top Hat really is the top when it comes to shows of this nature.
Top Hat plays at The Mill at Sonning until 30th December 2022. Less than an hour on a train from Central London, it really is a stunning place to visit. Tickets from www.millatsonning.com
Photos by Andreas Lambis