Top Hat is the fluffiest kind of theatre, from its farcical plot of mistaken identity to the feathers on its leading lady’s dress. The 1935 film is considered by many to be the culmination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s partnership (though the gentleman sitting next to me claimed that Swing Time deserves that honour). The legendary Astaire and Rogers sophistication comes from the glamorous designs, the proficient dancing and the music (the score includes extra songs borrowed from Irving Berlin’s back catalogue) as the script (adapted for the stage by Howard Jacques and director Matthew White) is held together by a sequence of gags that are as corny as Kansas in August. White’s production, arriving in the West End after a tour, does what it sets out to do very well in providing a unashamedly traditional but appropriately theatrical stage transfer of a much-loved film filled with evergreen songs that are always a pleasure to hear, especially when accompanied by such tip-top tap dancing.
In the tradition of entertaining nonsense, Jerry Travers, a Broadway star about to make his London debut, falls instantly in love with Dale Tremont, the fashion model in the room below. Her initial antipathy towards him blossoms into mutual attraction until a sequence of misunderstandings lead Dale to believe that her “afflicted admirer” is actually Horace Hardwick, her best friend Madge’s latest husband (and the producer of Jerry’s show). Hopping from London to Venice makes matters even more complicated.
The first act moves at a brisk pace that becomes more longwinded after the interval. The second half could be cut down by a good 15 minutes and the obligatory malapropism-prone funny foreigner’s (Ricardo Afonso) striptease number feels more like Lend Me a Tenor (not a good thing) than classic Hollywood, but fortunately there’s always the guarantee of another ebullient Berlin song coming up.
Triple threat leading men who can sing, dance and act in equal measure and have megawatt charisma are rare in Britain. Former Strictly Come Dancing champion Tom Chambers has a highly dubious accent and a limited vocal range, but his dancing, fortunately, is up to scratch and he proves an able soloist and partner. In the Rogers role, Summer Strallen is in good voice and looks the part of a Hollywood goddess to perfection; her leg extensions are things of wonder, particularly when she unleashes the full force of talents in the sultry femme fatale number ‘Wild About You.’
The leads are supported by a splendid trio of character turns: counterbalancing the romantic idealism are the jaded couple Horace and Madge (“Sometimes I think you only married me for my father’s fortune.” “I would have married you no matter whose fortune it was.”). Vivien Parry is hilariously pragmatic as the high-maintenance spendthrift Madge and Martin Ball makes a terribly correct English gentleman of a certain age and class. Keeping a close eye on his charges is Stephen Boswell as poker-faced valet Bates, who turns up unexpectedly in all manner of disguises.
With the luxury of full colour that the film didn’t have (though it wouldn’t be right in anything other than black and white), Hildegard Bechtler’s fluidly-moving Art Deco sets evoke a fantasy world of luxury that never was, rather like the parade of Wodehousian British caricatures. Costume designer Jon Morrell dresses the cast elegantly and wisely doesn’t recreate Rogers’s infamous feathers dress, using the feather motif more sparingly as an embellishment.
Most important of all is Bill Deamer’s choreography, which undoubtedly pays homage to the original but still feels fresh. In musical comedy-land, Jerry Travers only meets his fellow performers for the first time before a run-through an hour before the show opens – the impeccably drilled ensemble might make it look effortless when it’s technically anything but.