Monday 28 November 2022


Theatre review: Top Hat at The Mill at Sonning

Top Hat is an iconic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical from the 1930s, featuring music and lyrics by the equally iconic Irving Berlin. Yet, despite its age and recognisable musical numbers, it was only turned into a stage production about 10 years ago in the UK. And after nationwide tour, the show had a short-lived but well-loved run in the West End, before going back on the road. I saw it twice during its stint in London and am thrilled the show is now back on stage for British audiences to enjoy. This time around it's playing at the Mill at Sonning, a dinner theatre near Reading. 

Jerry Travers (Jonny Labey) is a Broadway tap-dancing sensation performing on the London stage for the first time. One night, he's running through one of his routines in his hotel room and he disturbs Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay) who is staying in the room just below his. When she complains about the noise and the two meet, sparks immediately fly. Romance and hilarity ensue from London to Venice through mistaken identities, farcical disguises, and satirical characters running amok in the background. 

Top Hat is one of my personal all-time favourite musicals, and even ten years later I still vividly remember the incredible West End performances. I admit, I wasn't sure how well the production at The Mill at Sonning would fare in comparison to the flawless performances I remembered from the London run, but I needn't have worried. 

This is the second year that The Mill at Sonning team has put on this classic musical in their unique space, and it shows in how smooth the show is already running even just a few weeks into this year's production. Despite some changes in the cast from the 2021 show, everything about this show is like a well-oiled machine; from the staging and choreography to the light and sound design. 

One thing that is immediately noticeable when stepping into the auditorium of this former flour mill, is that the stage is narrow and close to the first row of seats. It understandably so doesn't have the same level of depth a West End house has, and as such the team had to get creative to emulate a much bigger stage and company in the show-stopping tap-dancing numbers that Top Hat is known for. 

And they succeeded. Even when those spectacular dance sequences, such as Puttin' on the Ritz and Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails, had less than ten people on stage at the same time. The tight choreography by Ashley Nottingham (Newsies, Strictly Come Dancing), incredible performing talent, and the set design by Jason Denvir (Mack and Mabel, Gypsy) – which cleverly extends its art deco design into the auditorium and gives the illusion of a far longer stage – made the show and company seem much larger than the reality.

While Top Hat's strengths lie in those dazzling chorus line numbers, it's balanced well by quieter moments and even by some over-the-top hilarity nearly bringing the show into farce territory. Particular stand outs included the sweet I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, in which charismatic leading man Jonny Labey (Strictly Ballroom, Barefoot in the Park) gives his tap-dancing shoes a brief break to charm everyone's socks off with this sweet serenade. On the opposite end of the scale is the very much not sweet and subtle Latins Know How, in which Andy Rees (School of Rock, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) goes all out as Italian fashion designer Beddini; performing a one-man show-stopping number in his own right. 

Special mention must also go to Paul Kemble (The Sound of Music, Sister Act) as theatre producer Horace Hardwick, whose bad luck provides the majority of laughs throughout (from the moment he confessed to "catching the bouquet at a funeral" through to him getting falsely accused of chasing after Dale), and Brendan Cull as Horace's quick-witted valet Bates (Singin' in the Rain, Murder on the Orient Express), who is single-handedly responsible for the wealth of terrible disguises that run throughout the show. 

If you've been interested in experiencing a performance at The Mill at Sonning, then you can absolutely not go wrong with this production of Top Hat. Despite the limited performing space, this smaller scale production packs a toe-tapping punch and is a must-see for existing fans of the show and movie as well as those who have yet to be initiated. This company is immensely talented, and as an audience member it's an absolute privilege to watch them work their tap-dancing magic in such an intimate space. 

Side note: The Mill at Sonning is a dinner theatre, which means that each ticket also comes with a meal (lunch for a matinee, dinner for an evening performance). I wasn't sure what to expect of this but the quality and value are absolutely incredible. The meal is buffet-style, so there's no risk of tiny portions and getting hungry during the interval. And there's plenty of choice on the menu, whether you eat meat, fish, or are a vegetarian. This is a really wonderful addition to the overall experience, especially for those theatre-goers who are perhaps on the fence about making the trip out of town for a theatre show. 

Top Hat is playing at The Mill at Sonning until 30 December 2022 and you can book your tickets here.

Production photo credit: Andreas Lambis

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