Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th September, 2011
This brand-new stage adaptation of the 1935 Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film has quality running through it like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock. Lavish, art deco sets (thirty scene changes!) sumptuous costume design, a large company on the stage and an equally large orchestra underneath it. Money has been spent on this production to an extent rarely seen in a show that’s touring the provinces.
The plot, like something P G Wodehouse might have scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet, is paper-thin and the characters are a bit one-note – unlike the score. Irving Berlin’s back catalogue has been raided to beef up the set list (there are only five songs in the original movie) and it plays like a “Best of” tribute show.
There is nothing overtly political about the show – other than its very existence. In times of economic hardship, the masses seek out glamour and fluff for entertainment, as a means of temporary escape from the struggles and despondency of everyday life. That Top Hat is donned again in this day and age, when belts are tight and the world is going to hell in a Tesco trolley is a true sign of the times.
But does it work? It is joyously and unabashedly old-fashioned. The script is riddled with jokes cornier than even I would post on Twitter. The only note of cynicism is reserved for a running commentary on the estate of marriage. Gradually, the show wins you over. The second act, set in Venice, is far more fun than the first, as silliness and high camp are given full rein. One learns to sit back and watch it un-ironically and accept it for what it is: an upmarket Christmas cracker, with groan-inducing humour and a bit of tinsel around your paper crown.
For me it was the songs, those glorious songs, that kept me hooked. The two leads never quite manage to dazzle in the same way as Fred & Ginger, and how could they? But the melodies and the 1930s arrangements are indeed sublime. Irving Berlin may not have been as consistent a lyrical genius as Cole Porter, but he didn’t half churn out some classics. “Cheek To Cheek” is one of the best songs ever written, and its performance, suitably crooned and hoofed by Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen was for me the highlight of this glittering soufflé of a show.