Theatre review: Tipping The Velvet, Edinburgh

ITS cultural roots are very different, and its subject reflects a kind of gender politics that was just beginning to find its voice, back in the early 1970s.

Tipping the Velvet blend of popular culture and heartfelt political theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

Tipping The Velvet

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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Yet all the same, not since John McGrath and 7:84 engineered a brilliant collision between the form of the ceilidh and a piece of sharp socialist agitprop about land ownership in Scotland, has any company achieved a more joyful, purposeful and entertaining blend of popular culture and heartfelt political theatre than audiences will find in this exhilarating stage version of Sarah Waters’s Tipping The Velvet, created at the Lyric, Hammersmith by director-of-the-moment Lyndsey Turner, and co-produced by the Lyceum Theatre.

The popular form in play here is not ceilidh but old-time music hall; and those who are old enough to remember Leonard Sachs, his gavel, and the brio with which he used to introduce the acts on the BBC’s Good Old Days, will immediately recognise the cultural territory being opened up by our chairman David Cardy.

He appears in top hat and tails before a rich red plush curtain, and begins to usher us through the dramatic tale of young Nancy Astley, an oyster girl from Whitstable whose life of adventure begins when she falls in love with a theatrical male impersonator called Kitty Butler, becomes her dresser, and follows her to London.

In the big city, fame and heartbreak beckon, as Nancy’s picaresque journey leads her from the ecstasy of first love, through success as a music-hall star, to interludes as a prostitute and a rich woman’s plaything.

It’s a story that walks a tightrope between cheerfully knowing titillation on one hand, and gay and feminist agitprop on the other; but in Laura Wade’s adaptation, it keeps its balance beautifully throughout, thanks to its streak of pure, open-hearted romance, and its hugely witty score by Michael Bruce, which deploys a whole range of recent songs, from Bronski Beat’s ­Runaway to These Boots Were Made For Walking, to remind us of the freedoms that have been won so recently, and of the role a new, music-driven 20th-century pop culture played in that liberation.

Sally Messham turns in a ­brilliant star performance as Nancy, Lizzie Clachan’s quick-change set designs are as vivid as they are witty, and at the end, when Nancy finally seizes the gavel from the leering old Chairman and starts to shape her own fate, the audience is ready to cheer her to the echo, along with the powerful 14-strong company who help conjure up her story for us, in words, music and song.

• Until 14 November