'Tipping the Velvet' review or 'Keep those sex toys clean!'

'Tipping the Velvet', Laura Wade (adapted from Sarah Waters’ book)
Lyric Theatre, 30th September 2015

My notepad is packed with frustrated scribbles. A lot of the time, I’ve just scrawled the word WHY? This version of Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ – carefully adapted by Laura Wade and fussily directed by Lyndsey Turner – is deeply frustrating and ultimately quite dull. It should be good fun: it’s packed with music hall performances and contemporary pop songs and is held together by a sparky central performance. But there is nothing really going on here. It doesn’t feel meaningful and it certainly doesn’t feel sexy. That’s a problem since Sarah Waters’ novel is about the sexual awakening of a young lesbian in Victorian England. It’s a steamy story; it’s bold and risqué and means a lot to an awful lot of people. But this show feels like cop-out. It’s too safe. It’s too sanitized. It’s too busy – and it’s much, much too long.

There are a lot of the tropes we now associate with the Lyric theatre in here; a willingness to fuck about with tradition, to rattle the framework of conventional theatre and wink manically at the audience. In the best Lyric shows that cheekiness feels wild, dangerous and hot. But what is so odd about this production is that all the cheeky flourishes only slow it down and de-sexualise it. Every embellishment or departure works against the passion, the people and the seductive power of Waters’ story.

Laura Wade has framed her adaptation with a narrator; the chairman of the music hall, played with old-school sparkle by David Cardy. Cardy’s chairman guides us through the play: he introduces the characters, sets up the scenes and keeps things moving forward. Every time the chairman’s gavel comes down – boom! – the story is budged on another notch. But it feels very odd to have someone hovering at the edges of Nan’s story, gently taking the piss and always – always – allowing us a little distance from the action. There is a moment very late on when the narrator’s influence takes on a sinister edge but it’s way too late by this point. Most of the time, it feels like the narrator is there to allow us to guffaw when things get a little too messy, too steamy, too lesbian.

Time and again this show pulls back when it should be - and you can make this phrase as sexy as you like – diving right in. There’s way too much safe space here. Yes, we watch Nancy (Sally Messham) leave her family in Whitstable and travel to London with male-impersonator Kitty (Laura Rogers). Yes, we watch those two fall in love and Nancy join Kitty’s act. And – yes – we watch Nancy fall on hard times, work as a prostitute, move in with a female sex-fiend and finally end up in a loving lesbian relationship. Yep, we watch all of these things and yet we never gasp. We never feel horny. We never feel shocked or even stop to think about the status of lesbian women in Victorian England or today. We rarely feel or think a thing.

Nancy and Kitty’s musical hall scenes are weirdly underpowered. Messham’s Nancy grows brilliantly bold and Roger’s Kitty smoulders and entices, but somehow their encounters never feel sexy or fun. There’s such a strange aversion to sex in this production! When Nancy and Kitty finally get it on, they perform a weird rope act suspended above the ground. It’s deeply bizarre and only makes us giggle.  Later, when Nancy holes up with sex-maestro Diana (Kirsty Besterman), their first sexual encounter is – AGAIN – depicted using a lot of swirling about in the air. Sure, these scenes might add a few notches to the ‘Musical Hall Homage’ bedpost but they’re such sex-less and silly affairs.

The sex isn’t sexy, then. On top of this, the danger isn’t dangerous, the dark moments are not dark and the lows are not low – because there is always, always a song. When Nancy hits rock bottom and finds herself in Soho, she is lured towards prostitution. Yep, prostitution. Guess what happens next? You guessed it – a song! A bunch of beach-billboards (the type with holes for holidaying faces) drop down on-stage, only these boards have a few extra holes in ‘em (I’ve got to say, Lizzie Clachlan designs the hell out of this piece and it’s always fun too look at). Nan then parades along the line of billboards (and bless Messham for attacking every scene with gusto, no matter how dubious) and blows a whistle for every single chock she’s sucked. Oh how we laughed!

It doesn’t end there, folks. There’s a bonkers scene when Nancy hangs alongside a row of pig carcases and bleats out her woes. In another scene, when Nancy is at her lowest point, she rattles through a medley of clichéd pop songs and drapes herself over the furniture, with the narrator egging her long from the sidelines. That sounds like it could’ve been sinister but it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. Instead, we all laugh and sit back in our seats. We basically couldn’t care less – and that just can’t be right.