Resurrecting music hall is a bit like trying to tell half-remembered pub jokes from the night before: the wit, the sharpness is lost in a kind of vanishing smoke haze. Playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner spend most of their energies in this muddled adaptation snatching at this diffuse fug, trying to capture its magic.
They succeed, partly, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory built on slashing and burning through their source matter, and losing its distinctive soul. Admittedly, Tipping the Velvet’s soul is hard to capture: teenage-diary intense, silly, brilliant, and a tiny bit embarrassing all at the same time. It was Sarah Waters’ debut, a blend of autobiography and wish-fulfilment fantasy. Her MA studies didn’t yield her hoped-for discoveries of a lesbian Victorian underworld – she invented one, instead, and what a world it is. There’s a sadistic dominatrix with a shifting harem of kept women and a chest of leather toys (Diana), a socialist utopia of lesbians who help “fallen women” then hang out at lesbian pubs more bustling than anything the next two centuries have to offer, and of course, male impersonators who strut in trousers on stage and toss roses to the girls wilting for them, up in the balconies.
It’s a seductive world that’s more revealing about Waters’ own desires, about the politics and preoccupations of 90s lesbians (hence, embarassing) than it is about Victorian society. But it’s also got lots of “thud” moments of emotional truth. Bits that are painfully real in the middle of all the fabled romance, like a shit on a manicured Paris street. Nancy’s sexuality alienates her from her family, makes her lose her lover to the forces of heteronormativity and the casting couch, makes her spin romances of her own to present as safely straight when she’s down on her luck.
Laura Wade’s adaptation is far more comfortable with the painted romance than with the emotional heft of her source matter. She shatters the text into hyper-quick scenes, rushed along by a music hall showman narrator. It’s a hopelessly misguided decision (and isn’t helped by David Cardy’s cor-blimey-guvnor performance), ironising and distancing us still further from a play that’s already made artificial with backdrops and musical hall jollity.
The central performances from Sally Messham and Laura Rogers shine – Messham is painfully young, just the right hint of Doris Day-in-Calamity Jane bluster, and Rogers is a crumpled mess of tissues behind her heavily made-up stage swagger. But just when we’re about to care about them, to feel something, we’re hurried along to the next attraction by a gimp with a gavel and the rumbling of a gorgeously extravagant scene change from designer Lizzie Clachan.
It feels like Wade and Clachan are trying, between them, to outdo the Lyric Hammersmith’s legendarily lavish pantomimes for glitz and silliness and surreal set pieces. When Nancy is humiliatingly dumped, losing her home and livelihood, she has to scream out her heartbreak hanging upside-down from a meat hook, accompanied by a chorus of puppet pig carcasses. Her sexual awakening at the hands of Kitty takes place twenty foot up in the air, tangled in red aerial silks to the cringeworthy sound of a gospel choir. It looks uncomfortable, like a bellringing accident, and it’s a relief when both women make it down intact.
It’s typical of a production that’s saturated with sex, but profoundly unsexy. Corseted women brandish vast, comically wobbling dildos, and their musical hall numbers subvert male gaze anthems like Spencer Davis’s I’m A Man with awkward, ill-fitting-smoking-jacket glamour. Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn makes the briefest of appearances, but this is lesbianism seen through straight eyes, with none of the Gossip songs or little sly in-jokes that a queer production team might slip in. Forget the latex corsets and dildos, the real stereotropes of queer women’s culture tend to the unglamorous: emotional honesty, real ale, flat shoes, activism, vegetarianism. Waters’ novel makes showbiz a kind of sequinned Hades that Nancy whirls through only to find happiness in a rather dowdy socialist utopia. But as Nancy’s heart finally sings in the arms of her suffragette girlfriend, this production creaks and groans to a halt.
This loss of momentum in the earnest third act is a function of an approach that leads us on a male-gaze bus tour through the story — conditioning our response to either voyeuristic gawps or knee-jerk laughs. It’s fun. It’s definitely a good night out. But its also maddening in its inability to address the emotional seriousness, the utopian world-building, the things that make the novel loved as well as laughed at. With precious few lesbian plays about (and still fewer that aren’t set in prison) it’s an empty kind of laughter.