Top Hat review: The Rattonians, Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until August 3

The Rattonians present Top Hat. Peter Gurr Creative Photography
The Rattonians present Top Hat. Peter Gurr Creative Photography

When our splendid Congress Theatre finally re-opened in spring this year, the reaction of most people was a sigh of relief.

For Rattonians, it must have been a shout of triumph (and 16 bars of high-kicking).

A couple of scaled-down interim productions, squeezed into the Devonshire Park next door, could never do justice to one the finest and most ambitious musical theatre companies in Southern England. These guys need space – and now Rattonians have their space back.

Expectancy was in the air at Thursday’s first night. A full car park, and a brimming foyer: it was like a huge family reunion. The curtain rose to a terrific audience, with the stalls three-quarters full: some big touring productions would bite your arm off for figures like that. Goodness, they’d already been humming along to the overture with Carl Greenwood’s splendidly breezy orchestra. Let the show commence...

Top Hat actually opens with a full-company tap number – nothing like a challenge! – immaculately performed by an ensemble who would, throughout the evening, deliver precision and vivacious energy. Choreographers Jan Lynton and Star Bray have every move finely tuned.

Famously starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the original 1935 MGM version, Top Hat is not dated in any negative sense. Slightly coy relationships and romances, yes, but played out with humour and buoyancy by the experienced Rattonians leads. And the Fred and Ginger roles are reprised outstandingly by Alex Adams and Laura Sivers.

The plot, hinged entirely on an improbable mistaken identity, takes Alex’s star performer Jerry Travers from Broadway to New York – and later to Venice - in pursuit of Laura’s sparkling socialite Dale Tremont. Alex has assured presence, dazzling dance moves and a voice like liquid gold, while Laura’s own thrilling vocals fill the auditorium – including a knock-out Wild About You solo – and her tigress dance moves are breathtaking.

But if the storyline is a wee bit feeble, the dialogue itself is great fun – a relentless stream of witty one-liners, like a Marx Brothers autocue. And when delivered by your favourite actors, all on the sharpest of form and all having great fun, you have a winning show.

Steve Clarke, as impresario Horace Hardwick, is the wonderfully harassed and hapless victim of the mix-ups – and of his redoubtable wife Madge, played with glorious abandon by an incomparable Melanie Adams. Damon Willer revels in the role of Bates the butler, appearing in a string of improbable disguises, and Peter Gurr is a preposterous Italian Lothario who almost marries the heroine, and almost loses all his clothes on set. Don’t ask.

In fact, beyond our leading couple, there’s hardly a sane character on show, although Mark Adams keeps order with his usual air of authority as hotel manager. Fine support from Grant Martins with one stunning vocal solo, and a shadow-dancing number, which is the cleverest piece of direction in a slickly directed show. Star Bray and Jay Haher chip in with amusing cameos.

The expansive set has a ’30s feel with lovely period features – plush London hotels and Venetian restaurants – and vast sliding panels sweep shut to allow scene changes. Or, two or three times, almost shut, to cleverly create mini-scenes which include a rattling London cab and a lurching aeroplane over the Alps!

It’s almost a given that Rattonians shows are simply gorgeous to look at. Every single costume in every single scene is spot-on, and the ensemble numbers literally dazzle.

And so we come full circle: the real, lavish indulgent pleasure of Top Hat is its wonderful music. Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Face the Music, Piccolino, and the Top Hat title song itself, all delivered with a precision, sizzle and exuberance that would grace a West End stage. We are fortunate indeed to have Rattonians on our own Congress stage – back where they belong.

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