Tag Archives: John Conroy

Top Drawer


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 23rd October, 2014

Adapted from the old Fred Astaire film by Matthew White and Howard Jacques, this Top Hat is refreshingly upbeat. The material is presented at face value – there are no ‘knowing’ looks, or nods to today’s more cynical age. We are allowed to enjoy it for what it is.  TImes have changed: smoking is no longer socially acceptable or seen as glamorous – but what remains the same is our love of a song-and-dance number expertly performed.

The story is paper-thin. Broadway star Jerry Travers (Alan Burkitt) comes to London to star in a revue. At his hotel he meets beautiful American Dale Tremont (Charlotte Gooch) and sets out to woo and win her over. She mistakes him for her best friend’s husband and complications arise, culminating in farcical misunderstandings in Venice…

It’s lightweight froth but hugely enjoyable. The script is peppered with corny one-liners – as familiar as the Irving Berlin songs – most of them delivered by Clive Hayward as Horace Hardwick. Broader comedy comes from Sebastien Torkia’s portrayal of hotheaded Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini and there is some amusing character work from John Conroy as Hardwick’s sarcastic valet Bates. Rebecca Thornhill is good value as the sardonic Mrs Hardwick

Supported by an excellent troupe, Burkitt and Gooch hoof around in a dazzling display of tap and high kicks. Burkitt is exceptional as the showbiz star who can’t keep still. His vocal stylings suit the 1930s numbers perfectly. One can imagine John Barrowman playing this role (he does, most of the time anyway!). Gooch is more than a match for Burkitt’s abilities. The show is worth the ticket price for the exquisite beauty of Cheek To Cheek alone.

It’s old-school spectacle. Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant set is a monument to Art Deco – there are a lot of scenes and there is humour and charm in the staging: the horse-drawn cab, for example, and the aeroplane arriving in Venice.

But it’s the dance numbers that hold us enthralled. There is something about a stage-full of people tap-dancing in synch that is spellbinding. Bill Deamer’s choreography goes all out to capture the style and brilliance of the classic film. Energy pours off the stage as the impressive cast and chorus delight us with this visit to another world, a better world of song and dance and happy endings. Just like in the Depression, we need quality escapism to take us out of these dark times of austerity. Top Hat is a toe-tapping tonic. It’s uplifting, unadulterated fun.


A Gay Old Time

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 2nd October, 2012

It’s the height of World War II. In a London beset by air raids, comedian Sammy Shaw (Gary Wilmot) is doing his bit to keep the nation’s morale high with his radio show, broadcast live from a West End theatre. He is supported by a company of talented singers, dancers and musicians – including his long-suffering girlfriend, Olive (Sara Crowe). The show is under threat, not only from the Nazis but also from the BBC. The corporation’s rules about what is acceptable and what is not are a headache for Sammy; he is forever having to cut items and find new material. Add Olive’s ex, matinee idol Gary Strong (Michael Hobbs) to the mix and Sammy’s already strained relationship with Olive is brought to breaking point.

The cast all sing, dance and play a range of instruments – the triple threat of musical theatre. It is unfair to single any of them out for special mention; they form too tight an ensemble for that.

As cheeky chappie, Sammy, Gary Wilmot is well within his comfort zone, in his Max Miller suit, wise-cracking his way into and out of trouble. Sara Crowe is touching as the neglected Olive, with a ‘show must go on’ mentality, and a tolerance level that keeps her hanging on long after most people would have shown Sammy the door.

Christian Edwards as sound engineer Jeeps is superb. He sings, he dances, he plays a mean trombone, as well as carrying the romantic subplot and becoming a hero. Amy, the object of his affection is played with elegance by Vivien Carter, who – like everyone else – is a dazzlingly versatile performer.

I particularly liked John Conroy as stuffy producer Heathcliffe Bultitude – a stock figure from comedy: the killjoy. He shows he is full of surprises and contributes many of the comedic highlights of the piece.

In a show where there is never a dull moment, highlights for me include “Hey Little Hen” which involves an outbreak of ukuleles, and the a capella rendition of “Run Rabbit Run” encapsulates the charm of the whole show. Sammy’s heartfelt declaration to Olive, via song, is the emotional punch of the piece, proving Wilmot is not just a cheeky face.

The book is by Abi Grant and Alex Armitage, drawing on the traditions of British comedy. The script is relentlessly funny, dripping with innuendo and silliness. I wonder how much the BBC’s restrictions fostered this type of comedy, where the filthiest things can be mentioned and alluded to through coded references and euphemism. Round the Horne probably wouldn’t have existed without the constraints imposed by that little green rule book. The characters punctuate their corniest lines with an Arthur Askey-esque “I thang ew” – it is the equivalent of writing LOL at the end of your text messages or status updates, except here it is charming.

The score is purely the work of one composer from the era, the marvellous Noel Gay, whose name sums up his best work (from a time when ‘gay’ meant bright and cheerful). The show is a testament to his talent for writing catchy tunes. Like the wisecracks, the hits keep coming. Caroline Leslie’s direction keeps proceedings cracking along at a fair old pace. The show is slick, wildly funny, surprisingly touching andman unadulterated delight. Much as the Light Programme boosted spirits and cheered the nation up during the war, this production is a much-needed tonic in these grim and austere times.