Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith

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Note: an incredibly late response to this production, appearing so long after the show’s run because I submitted it for the Observer Anthony Burgess Competition (which, needless to say, it wasn’t shortlisted for).

“This is not how the show ends!” So goes the protest of the music hall MC in the closing scene of Tipping the Velvet, the Lyric Hammersmith’s knowingly theatrical stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel. David Cardy’s mansplaining cockney narrator is finally having his control challenged by Nancy Astley, the protagonist whose sexual awakening he has nudged and winked his way through for the last three hours. She has some problems with his telling and she’s ready – finally – to answer back. So who owns this story?

Writer Rebecca Solnit, weaver of her own exquisite stories, describes a book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another”. Without the lifeblood of readers pumping through them, novels are just so many empty ventricles. Since its publication in 1998, Tipping the Velvet has pulsed beneath the ribs of millions of readers. The heart metaphor, indeed, seems especially apt for a novel that means so much to so many. A landmark in lesbian fiction, Waters’ tale of an imagined queer subculture glittering beneath the soot and grime of Victorian London has countless ardent fans.

It’s easy to see why the story of oyster girl turned music hall star Nancy has become so fiercely beloved. Tipping the Velvet is a sumptuous, enveloping read, packed with both period detail and lush imaginative embellishment. At the novel’s opening, Nancy is leading a drab, ordinary life in Whitstable, working in her parents’ oyster parlour and spending evenings with a local beau. Then, one night at the music hall in Canterbury, she sees Kitty Butler, a male impersonator or “masher”. It’s love – and lust – at first sight. In the course of a musical number, Nancy’s life is transformed.

Nancy’s infatuation is as much with the greasepaint and glamour of the music hall as it is with the gender-bending Kitty. And it’s this aspect of the novel that playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner have seized on in adapting it for the stage. It makes sense: relocating a narrative to the theatre, why not emphasise its already theatrical elements? So Nancy’s journey of self-discovery becomes a series of music hall acts, ranging from the colourful to the ridiculous, all firmly rooted in the Lyric’s own music hall past.

There’s always been a hint of the fantastical to Tipping the Velvet. Waters herself describes the book as her “attempt to write a Victorian-style novel telling a very lesbian story in a way that was half-authentic but half-anachronistic too”. It’s semi-historical fiction: a sexy twentieth-century riff on lavish Victorian storytelling. Dickens with dildos. Nancy herself, meanwhile, is a chameleonic figure, forever shrugging on a new performance as changing circumstances demand.

It’s wise, then, to approach her tale with some fictional flourish. Gritty realism was never going to serve this narrative well, so it’s for the best that Wade and Turner, along with designer Lizzie Clachan, have embraced a more flamboyant approach, decorating the drama with gaudy painted backdrops and circus acrobatics. But Waters’ novel is no straightforward carnivalesque romp. It’s not with sex or spectacle alone that a novel steals its way into readers’ hearts. Nancy’s story is also passionate and heartbreaking, full of all the giddy vertigo and crushing despair of first love. It is as devastating as it is joyous.

The Lyric’s production, though, has only the one tone. That’s the problem with music hall: it’s designed as a vehicle for broad comedy and thigh-slapping entertainment. But emotional nuance? Not so much. It’s a form – with its insistent gags and relentless visual humour – that demands we laugh. When the object of that laughter is a tender, tentative relationship between two women, though, it’s uncomfortable at best and wildly offensive at worst.

The form also makes it tough to care about its characters. Nancy’s yearning, hot and urgent, should be palpable. In this version, though, Sally Messham – excellent in every other respect – struggles to reach across the gulf opened up by the production’s self-conscious style of choice. Her Nancy, at once bold and tremulous, contains just the right blend of naivety and defiance, but she is forever kept at one remove from the audience. Her romances, first with Laura Rogers’ self-assured and ambitious Kitty and later with socialist force of nature Florence (a no-nonsense yet soft-centred Adelle Leonce), are oddly distant.

There is, admittedly, fun to be had in this adaptation. At times rivalling the Lyric’s much-loved pantomime, the music hall turns deploy their share of ingenuity in moving the narrative forward. Nancy’s breathless journey to London, where she follows rising star Kitty as her dresser and later her fellow performer, is all conveyed through a busy chorus of voices and sound effects; the two women’s hesitant attraction is a tiptoeing dance of suppressed flirtation. For the music itself, Victorian favourites are traded for music hall arrangements of the likes of Prince’s “Kiss” and Miley Cyrus’s infamous “Wrecking Ball”, recalling the a capella numbers that Turner memorably inserted into Wade’s earlier play Posh and wittily filtering the past through the present.

But by forcing Tipping the Velvet into this tight music hall frame, Wade and Turner have smashed it into troublingly small fragments. Each miniature scene whisks past before it can have any real impact, sticking around only as long as it takes to deliver a punchline. Unlike the intense, confessional prose of Waters’ novel, this is a frustratingly interrupted narrative. More worryingly, the curtains have a habit of swishing closed right at the moment the female characters are nearing intimacy. When we do get lesbian sex, it’s studiedly metaphorical: performers twirl and sway in coy aerial acts. The implicit message is that this desire is to be hidden, kept safely behind curtains or cloaked in metaphor.

Most problematic of all is the leering, ever-present master of ceremonies, doling out enforced jollity regardless of the emotional tenor of the drama. Brandishing his gavel – regularly employed to stop and start the action – Cardy’s narrator is two parts East End geezer, one part sleazy uncle. His telling of Nancy’s Sapphic adventures is painfully patronising, enclosing everything on stage within the voracious male gaze. There is a purpose to this, establishing a dominant framework in order to eventually dismantle it. But why can’t this female narrative, told by a female creative team, reject patriarchal frameworks entirely?

Solnit has another startling metaphor for stories. They are “compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice”. By insisting on the music hall framing, Wade and Turner have robbed Nancy of her story. She’s left without direction or shelter, stumbling blindly through act after whimsical act.

The production’s nadir coincides with Nancy’s – though not in the way its creators might have intended. Betrayed by Kitty and utterly bereft, our protagonist trudges aimlessly through the streets of London, suddenly finding herself amid the meat and guts of Smithfield Market. In the novel, this is a moment of complete, all-consuming despair. On stage, by contrast, Nancy is hauled up in a harness, dangling alongside a row of puppet pig carcasses for a musical number that nudges the ridiculous into the realm of the offensive. It’s greeted not with empathy for the character’s suffering, but with muffled snorts of embarrassment.

So, again, whose story is this? You can tell a lot about a narrative from its ending. Waters’ novel closes with “a rising ripple of applause”, as though in the quiet contentment that Nancy finds with Florence she has finally stepped onto the right stage and into the right story. At the Lyric, on the other hand, Nancy wrestles back her story with just enough time to hide it away again, as the heavy velvet curtain falls on her and Flo’s private happiness. Wade and Turner do at least problematise the fashion of their storytelling, but Nancy is granted only enough narrative agency to bring about her own disappearance. And that, ultimately, is the most worrying music hall turn of them all: the vanishing act.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire begins with a feast. In the National Theatre’s new production, the safety curtain opens to reveal a vast table heaving with food. Overstuffed pies; plates spilling over with fruit; a whole, glistening pig. An obscene bounty. Around the edges, heedlessly stuffing their faces throughout the people’s battles and declarations, sit a shadowy host of figures in gowns. The poor scrabble while the rich gorge.

It’s one hell of a metaphor – and one hell of a table, at that. Es Devlin’s raked design spreads greedily across the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre, occupying our entire field of vision. Above, a huge slanted mirror reflects back the candlelit opulence, while a gilt throne looms at the back of the stage. This is what the impoverished idealists and revolutionaries of Caryl Churchill’s Civil War play, dwarfed by the finery that surrounds them, have to contend with.

Eschewing textbook Cavaliers and Roundheads for a focus on the radical far-left groupings of the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters, the sympathy of Churchill’s play lies with those dismantling the banquet. Her history is one of workers persuaded to fight by a fervent belief in the imminent arrival of Christ on earth; of radical thinkers and penniless hopers; of the heady possibilities of a nation without a monarch; and, finally, of those who would freely distribute rights to speech and land being crushed by those unwilling to relinquish their power. In this telling, it’s a war fought on heavenly promises for ultimately earthly spoils.

That’s where, again, the central metaphor comes in. Bit by bit, the opening feast is stripped back to the earth from which it came, as Devlin’s set undergoes an extraordinary transformation. But while the people may till that newly uncovered soil, it soon returns to the hands of a small elite. As revealed by the Putney Debates of autumn 1647, slap-bang in the middle of the play, the Civil War quickly becomes a battle not for freedom but for land. For Oliver Cromwell and his allies, this is the sticking point; democracy is not to come at the price of their privileged property rights.

Churchill’s is a play full of proclamations, of speeches grand and simple. We, the audience, are very deliberately addressed, positioned almost as witnesses. During the pivotal Putney Debates, the house lights are gently raised, daring us to speak up. Later, Steffan Rhodri’s butcher stares right out at us, refusing to sell us any more meat. We’ve had more than our fill.

All that speaking, though, doesn’t always make for compelling drama. Lyndsey Turner’s production is a gorgeous thing to look at, with all the light, shade and careful composition of a series of paintings, yet like paintings the scenes too often feel static and poised. The rawness of anger and revolution has been given a pretty, polished sheen. There are some briefly breathtaking moments of theatricality – the voluminous tablecloth taking on a life of its own, or the wooden slats of the table being made to give way to the soil beneath – but for the most part it’s all talk and backdrop.

There are obvious, though not forced, resonances. We live in a time that feels similarly on the brink of an apocalypse – though one heralded by climate change rather than Christ – and we’re approaching the most genuinely unpredictable general election in decades. Again, we face both possibility and despair. And seeing the show on St George’s Day, the nationalist rhetoric tugs on the ear, speaking of all the ways in which pride for one’s country has been – and continues to be – used to mobilise people. But “for England” (or Britain) only ever really means for a select few.

In a subtle touch, Soutra Gilmour’s costumes suggest that the distance of rulers from ruled is temporal as well as economic. While the aristocratic chorus are got up in period gowns, the non-specifically scruffy Diggers, Levellers and Ranters could have been plucked out of various points in history – right up to the present day. One would-be revolutionary even pulls out a thermos. This has been going on for hundreds of years, Turner’s production seems to be saying, and those at the top still have yet to change.

This plays out on an epic scale, with the already large cast (Leo Bill, Joshua James, Trystan Gravelle and Adelle Leonce all stand out from the considerable crowd) supplemented by a community company of more than 40. There are an awful lot of bodies on stage. This is less the fragmented experience of war suggested by the play’s many small scenes and vignettes and more of a mass event, with a crowd of other players always lurking in the background. While this breadth can give a powerful sense of “the people”, however, the sheer size and ambition of the production – like the lavish spread it opens with – all feels a bit much. It’s a plea for the earth coming from the heart of the feast.

Chimerica, Almeida Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The photograph has always been something of a paradox; a record of ephemerality, the fleeting present moment arrested for posterity. It is a document of disappearance, the deceptive capture of something already lost, a lie and an irrefutable truth wrapped up in one. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger even suggests that the invention of the camera irrevocably altered our mode of perception, therefore changing the status of the image itself: “the camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless”. Yet still we cling to photographs as incontrovertible vestiges of the past, investing one image with the weight of an entire event – an entire ideology, even.

In Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood fixes her lens on just one of these historically burdened snapshots. In fact, that’s already a lie; there are at least six known versions of the iconic image that provides Kirkwood’s inspiration, implicitly refuting its uniqueness and by extension the irreproachable “truth” it is assumed to offer. The photographic catalyst for Kirkwood’s play is the ubiquitous visual encapsulation of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre by the Chinese military: the image of a man standing defiantly and defencelessly in front of a line of advancing tanks. It’s become one of the most hauntingly familiar images of the twentieth century, a symbol of non-violent protest and of the chilling opposition between the fragility of man and the might of machinery.

Around this one recorded act of heroism and the enduring mystery of the anonymous “Tank Man”, Kirkwood has crafted a taut, complex and nuanced thriller, with exhilaratingly ambitious scope. Her imagined American photojournalist, Joe, is fixated on this unknown icon of defiance who he photographed 23 years ago from the window of his Beijing hotel room. Spurred on by hints from his Chinese friend Zhang Lin and a cryptic clue in a Beijing newspaper, the quest to discover this man and the story behind the photograph quickly takes on the character of an obsession. It’s a detective story, of sorts, but set against the backdrop of a nation developing at frightening, breakneck speed. As one character puts it, this is a country that has gone from famine to Slimfast in the space of one generation.

If the glorious mess of Three Kingdoms queasily exposed the British view of Europe as Other, then Chimerica goes a long way towards skewering the hypocritically exoticising Western view of China. Although the title (borrowed from Niall Ferguson’s study of the economic dominance of this pair of superpowers) might inextricably link China and the USA, the play itself repeatedly demonstrates that we equate the citizens of these two nations at our peril. While consumer insight consultant Tessa highlights the pitfalls of treating Chinese shoppers like their counterparts in the West, Americans bemoan the Westernisation of Chinese culture in the same breath with which they sigh relief that the Chinese are becoming more like their capitalist cousins. They want authentic Chinese cuisine, but only if there’s a credit card machine at the till and a Starbucks round the corner.

The idea of the photograph, beyond providing the plot’s primary impetus, also reflects these strained perceptions that nations cultivate of one another. It’s all about how we see things. This currency of images decorates Es Devlin’s exquisite set, a revolving cube that recalls Tom Scutt’s brilliant design for 13 at the National Theatre and conjures similar ideas of being boxed in – by a restrictive state, by the photographic ghosts of history, by a consumer culture that would slot individuals into neat, easily targeted pigeon-holes. The surfaces of this cube become screens for various projected photographs, creating a constantly shifting backdrop of visual truths, lies and suggestions. These ever-present images also hint at the pervasive infiltration of visual media into our homes and lives, creating a world in which, as Joe cynically puts it, photographs of atrocity are no more than “clip art”.

For all its richly layered interrogation of economics, politics and the culture of images, the play remains motored throughout by a constantly engaging narrative. In his dogged mission to track down “Tank Man”, Joe increasingly jeopardises his job, his friendships and his burgeoning relationship with Tessa, yet somehow his obsessive investigation remains unfailingly compelling. This is largely down to the riveting precision of Lydnsey Turner’s tight production and the absorbing performance of Stephen Campbell Moore, who preserves a shred of empathy for Joe even at his most self-centredly illogical. His argument that “people need to know there’s heroism in the world” is an appealing one, but as journalistic curiosity morphs into unhealthy fixation, Joe’s pursuit is one of a strange kind of personal redemption rather than any real public interest.

As Joe races across New York and racks up his long distance phone bill on the trail of “Tank Man”, his disillusioned friend Zhang Lin, played with compassion and poignant weariness by Benedict Wong, faces mounting difficulties in Beijing. Alongside the central pairing of these two men, Kirkwood and Turner build a sophisticated cast of supporting figures, often achieving vivid characterisations in just a few quick strokes. Claudie Blakley’s blunt, businesslike Tessa has an edge of vulnerability and a nagging but never simplified social conscience, while Joe’s newspaper colleagues resist being wrestled into generic boxes. The evidence of the play itself would seem to counter Tessa’s glib assertion that in the age of mass communication and sophisticated consumer profiling there’s “no such thing as an individual”.

While focus is inevitably drawn to the impressive scope of Kirkwood’s writing, it’s equally hard to deny the visual beauty of Turner’s sleekly revolving production, bringing more excitement to the stage of the Almeida than it has witnessed in years. The staging is striking in a cinematic rather than a visceral sense, however, placed at an elegant remove from the audience. With its rapid succession of often short scenes and its gripping thriller plot, it is easy to see Chimerica working on screen, a medium that this production already seems to have at the back of its mind. If early whispers of a future life are realised – as they deserve to be – it would come as no surprise if a film adaptation is not far behind.

Resisting the cinematic vocabulary of the whole, the production’s one sharp injection of thrilling theatricality comes courtesy of a ghost from the Tiananmen Square massacre. Puncturing the realism of the scene, this figure unfurls from Zhang Lin’s fridge in a way that immediately brings to mind the performer springing from a suitcase in Three Kingdoms, providing a similarly startling physical interruption. At the close of the first act, this fragile, bloodied form bears a glowing red orb, passing the pulsing sphere from performer to performer in a sequence of captivating yet ominous beauty. This lingering moment recalls the poisoned apple of fairytale – a sinister metaphor, perhaps, for a deadly political fruit that Chimerica suggests is just waiting to be bitten into.