TIPPING THE VELVET Lyric, Hammersmith

At last. The question tormenting many a fretful middle-aged man – what do lesbians actually DO? – is answered. Aerialism! When the giddy moment comes, in Laura Wade’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ picaresque-erotic novel of Victorian lowlife, the participants are hoisted ten feet above the bed, still in their corsets, to swing acrobatically entangled. From silk slings – if romantically and innocently in love – or if involved in a more vicious encounter, from a chandelieresque iron frame above a cupboard-ful of strap-on leather dildos. Think Fifty Shades of Gay. However, if the encounter takes place in a worthily socialist community in Bethnal Green it is more basic and just involves a blanket over the head to facilitate tipping of the more homespun Corbynite velvet. So now you know, gents. Rest easy.
Sarah Waters’ novel made a sensation and a TV series for the good reason that it treated female same-sex love as having always been with us, absolutely natural albeit annoyingly disapproved of by the mainstream. It tells of Nancy the simple Whitstable oyster-girl, drawn into a music-hall career and downhill from there – transvestite rent-boy, Mayfair sex slave – until socialism saves her . It is not Waters’ best fiction (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger, The Paying Guest, infinitely better and more credible). But it is, as Wade and director Lyndsey Turner demonstrate, ideal for a rompy, pantomimic show (there’s even a songsheet for a massed ukelele version of These Boots Are Made for Walking. You slightly expect the trousered heroine to slap her thighs and cry “Twenty miles from London and still no sign of Dick!”.

Turner, under whose authority Mr Cumberbatch is still being and not being over the river at the Barbican, lets rip with all sorts of merriment. There are singing beef carcasses with xylophone ribs, a seaside-type cutout of clients receiving masturbatory attention through groin-level holes which are bells and whistles on which Nancy plays the National Anthem. And a nice cameo from Ru Hamilton as a be-tighted Soho renter called Sweet Alice.

The adaptation – starting with a lovely joke about the 1895 Lyric itself – takes the music-hall format of a tophatted MC – David Cardy – narrating young Nancy’s romantic intitiation, banging a gavel to speed up scenes to the interesting bit, and alternately relishing and deploring her activities. And if you suspect it is a leeeetle bit creepy to have a middle-aged man jovially supervising the first sexual encounters of a teenage girl, you’re not wrong. It is. Though we get a redemptive moment at the end where she takes the gavel off him, accepts the worthier of her lovers, and becomes “empowered” . But sometimes yes, creepy all right.

It romps along, with Sally Messham making a creditable debut as Nancy (though her singing voice is not yet firm enough to hold the songs for long) and Laura Rogers as her first love, the swaggering male-impersonator Kitty, a Burlington-Bertie in tails and topper. I say Burlington Bertie, but the play does not use – or pastiche – musichall songs, preferring a sort of early rock-n-roll approach, which usually (not always) works.

The psychology of Nancy’s decline into prostitution – boy-clad, tending to the gents in Soho Square – and her instant capitulation as kept sex slave to Madam Diana is wobbly, though her final conversion to the socialist-feminist cause is fairly convincing, with a perceptive sequence in which every serious question from her girlfriend causes her to grow a spotlight and rattle off a series of standup jokes. And anyway, in compensation for any flaky psychology we have sketches like Diana’s evil posh-tweedy-lesbian club, which is funny if a bit tiresome with its clitoris-fantasies, and a magnificent riff in which Nancy explains how to eat an oyster with such slimy, salty eroticism that the tweedy ladies collapse into chairs.

Well, you get the idea. It’s a big sprawly picaresque novel rendered into a pantomimic, polemic, ironic- erotic, hurrah-for-the-gay-girls night out, about half an hour too long. And the biggest laugh of the evening, given which week it is, is not about sex. It comes when the Bethnal Green Municipal Socialists panic that there aren’t enough sandwiches, and heroic Florence (Adelie Leoncie) cries “It’s a socialist rally! People will SHARE their sandwiches!”. Yeah, right.
box office 020 8741 6850 to 24 Oct http://www.lyric.co.uk
rating three    3 Meece Rating


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