Review of Top Hat – The Mill at Sonning Theatre

This is the sort of review in which I shall quickly use up all the superlatives I know! First seen in 2021 at Sonning, Top Hat was so successful that it has justifiably just been revived. What a show! Every aspect of it is superb

Top Hat - Billie-Kay and Jonny Labey. Photo by Andreas Lambis.
Top Hat – Billie-Kay and Jonny Labey. Photo by Andreas Lambis.

Firstly, of course, the 1935 Astaire/Rogers movie on which it is closely based with a very witty script by Howard Jacques and Matthew White, seemingly using much of the original dialogue, as well, of course, as many of Irving Berlin’s finest songs, plus some compositions interpolated from other shows, which fit the bill adroitly, even if they don’t all have that ‘lived in’ feeling that ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’, ‘No Strings’, ‘I’m putting all my eggs in one basket’ etc have!

Secondly, Sally Hughes, the artistic director, has assembled a well-nigh perfect cast, not just the ‘leads’ but the eight members of the ensemble as well. The dancing, choreographed by Ashley Nottingham, is terrific, not slavishly copied from the original but imaginatively altered for the, let’s be honest, relatively small stage at Sonning: but it never looks cramped.

In the Astaire role of Jerry Travers, Jonny Labey is simply superb. His stylish dancing and acting, as well as his poise and seemingly relaxed attitude and sense of fun, are redolent of all the Astaire/Rogers films. He has cultivated a slightly period speaking voice which is a delight to listen to and he is able to put over the songs, whether dancing or singing, with panache. This is a performance, and an actor, who is infinitely watchable – he has charisma and that ‘wow’ factor which is so rare.

He is more than ably partnered by Billie-Kay in the role of Dale Tremont, slightly taller than him, willowy, yet able to punch out a song with gusto, and, when it is occasionally called for, with romance. She and Labey work well together, and their sense of enjoyment in what they are doing is infectious.

Her friend Madge is amusingly played by Julia J Nagle demonstrating just the right amount of cynicism and humour in regard to the male sex, and her husband, Horace Hardwick, is in the hands of Paul Kemble – they have a duet towards the end of the show which is one of the many highlights of this production.

Brendan Cull is Bates, Hardwick’s valet, showcasing a real sense of humour as well as almost mimicking Eric Blore’s voice and mannerisms from the RKO film. He is one of those actors well able to make a secondary role his own and his every appearance is a treat. The named cast is completed by the Italian dress designer Beddini, beautifully and hilariously stereotyped by Andy Rees.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle’s apparent imaginative ‘light touch’ ensures that this musical sparkles throughout, Francis Goodhand contrives to make his band of three sound much larger than it really is, Natalie Titchener’s costumes are often breathtakingly imaginative, such as Dale’s feathery dress, and Jason Denvir’s imaginative period set design makes the best use of the space he has been given.

It is easy to understand why last year’s run of Top Hat sold out very quickly – BUT I have forgotten to mention the excellent two-course buffet meal that is served before the show. I had beef shin pie – succulent and tender – followed by The Mill’s signature dessert, bread and butter pudding, which I loathed as a child but not as prepared by the chefs here – it is divine! Food of the gods! Other meals are available! – and all look tempting, but there comes a time when you cannot eat any more and have to go into the theatre to watch the show…

The Mill at Sonning is a wonderful venue and yet again have a winner with TOP HAT.

5 Stars

Review by John Groves

TOP HAT brings the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age and the magic of the world-famous dance partnership of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers to the stage. This 2011 musical based on the 1935 film of the same name, tells the story of Broadway sensation Jerry Travers who dances his way across Europe to win the heart of society girl Dale Tremont. With an uplifting and entertaining script, this show celebrates 1930s song, style and romance. Underpinning every scene are Irving Berlin’s magnificent songs including Puttin’ On the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t This a Lovely Day and of course Top Hat, White Tie & Tails.

Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Based on RKO’s Motion Picture
Book by Matthew White & Howard Jacques

Creative team:
Director Jonathan O’Boyle
Choreographer Ashley Nottingham
Musical Arrangements & Musical Director Francis Goodhand
Set Designer Jason Denvir
Costume Designer Natalie Titchener
Sound Designer Chris Whybrow
Lighting Designer Nic Farman

The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Sonning Eye
Reading RG4 6TY
Box Office: 0118 969 8000
16 November – 30 December