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.

Not Working But Wandering

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“Walking, ideally, is a state of mind in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Walking has always been my cure of choice. When feeling beaten down or uninspired, I have a habit of taking my frustrations outside, of treading my anxieties into pavement or path. Even living in London for the past year and a half, where walking for its own sake feels less natural (especially – oh, how I hate that this remains the case – as a woman), wandering has been a refuge.

Slowly reading my way through Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, then, is an amble of delight and recognition. I love the unapologetic subjectivity of its voice; I love its idiosyncratic approach to the narrating of a history; I love its easy traversing of different terrains, moving fluidly through anecdote to literature to politics. And in its very form it finds the harmony of thought that walking allows, its intellectual rambling at once free and yet absolutely grounded in the landscape of the world we live in.

For days now I have been wrestling with how to write about all the things I have not been writing about, the shows that have been accusingly piling up behind me while work is tugging my attention in other directions. Until, devouring another chapter of Wanderlust in the snatched moments before sleep the other night, I thought of turning this too into a wander – a liberating meander rather than a joyless trudge towards my destination.

And how apt that two of the pieces of theatre that have been itching at my mind are about landscapes both literal and metaphorical, places to be walked and thought through. Both were seen at the caravan showcase in Brighton, where I was busy blogging and tweeting for Farnham Maltings, doing my best to act as a window for the outside world. Over the course of three days, I packed in as many shows and discussions as possible, punctuated by frantic tapping at my laptop keyboard.

So when I saw Landscape II, the new Melanie Wilson show that I had been kicking myself for missing ever since its run at BAC last year, I was tired. A small detail, but an important one. Because Landscape II, Wilson’s delicate tapestry of the lives of three women, requires a certain quality of concentration – one that I found myself struggling to give it. Its exquisite layering of story, sound and video offers a sort of sensory overload; as an audience member, you are required to sift through the information even as the narrative runs on. But strangely, at the same time as the mind scrabbles to piece things together, the pace of the show itself feels gorgeously unhurried. Time does funny things.

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Reflecting on the piece now, a couple of weeks after seeing it, I find it hard to draw together all its separate strands. What I remember is that it is about three women, separated by time and brutal circumstance, their stories overlapping with one another, the personal and the political bleeding together. Wilson narrates these stories from a desk to the side of the stage, the majority of which is dominated by an off-white, roughly textured wall – much like that of the cottage that is central to the action – which vividly blooms into life thanks to Will Duke’s projected video (perhaps the most stunningly simple use of projection I’ve seen used in a theatre). There is also a beautifully textured sound design, manipulated live on stage by Wilson, lulling and occasionally jolting us in our seats.

Wilson has a very particular quality as a performer, a quality that is not easy to render in words. It is something about her presence in the room – her half smile, the way she holds herself – but it is mostly about her voice. Gentle, hypnotic, almost sustained at one level tone, but peppered with the lightest of inflections. Sometimes, dangerously, soporific. During Landscape II, that mesmerising mode of delivery found me drifting. Not unpleasantly, I might add, and I wonder if that is the very experience the piece invites, though I would like to see it again and focus more intently on its different elements. While drifting, I found myself thinking about Gertrude Stein and her comments on the doubled, dislocated time of theatre, demanding as it constantly does an effort on the part of the spectator. I also thought, aptly, of her “landscape theatre”. Perhaps Wilson’s various landscapes invite a sort of imaginary walking, in which wandering off the path can be just as rewarding as sticking closely to its tracks.

There was a similar quality, I found, to the experience of watching Ours Was the Fen Country. Again, I was tired. Before seeing it, I had heard Dan Canham’s show described as “verbatim dance theatre”, a concept that intrigued me all by itself. What might that look like? As it turns out, this hybrid genre manifests itself as a series of recordings, performed interview material (using the same headphone technique that Alecky Blythe is now well known for), sound and movement. It all stems from Canham’s research in the Fens, a fading landscape that is evoked on stage by its words and images and a careful physicalisation of its atmosphere.

Like the place it explores, Ours Was the Fen Country is strange, haunting, sometimes bleak and sometimes beautiful. As with Landscape II, it is possible to drift in and out, at some times tuning in to the words of the Fen inhabitants, at others to the movements of the performers. I would have loved to have seen more of that movement, which suddenly elevates the piece each time it breaks through. There is one particularly magical moment, early on in the piece, where the leap from spoken to embodied history elicits a collective shiver. Words fall into a rhythm, pattered out by one pair of feet, then more, until all of the performers are moving as one. It is dance, but it is also work and walking and tracing the same steps day after day, animating the landscape as a collective body.

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Perhaps one of the reasons I love walking is because it offers one of the few interludes when I feel completely untethered from work. I like the idea, articulated by Solnit, that “walking is an amateur act”. When walking as an act in its own right rather than as a way of propelling myself from A to B, I am aimless in the best of ways; no destination or deadline directs the rise and fall of my feet. Elsewhere, I am either working or feeling guilty about not working, but when I walk I am absorbed by the gentle physical activity, comfortable in my thoughts and my body.

Recently I have been thinking a lot, both personally and academically, about work. I repeat to myself the words “work is not a moral good” (I think I need a sign to put up somewhere in my room) but I still act as though it is. I write these sentences in a paper about artistic labour, knowing as I do that they uncannily describe my own relationship to my work:

“In many ways, cultural work presents an ideal example of immaterial labour, marrying as it does often intangible outputs with precarious working conditions, ever-lengthening hours and the insidious erosion of distinctions between work and life – all of which is endured and even celebrated under the banner of creativity, self-expression and flexibility. Love for one’s work becomes an agent of one’s own exploitation.” 

I do love my work, but I also love the moments around it, the moments that are not work in any real sense but that feed richly into both work and life. The time that I am lucky enough to spend in rehearsal rooms (time that has happily found a bit of space in my life again in the last few weeks) seems to fall into that latter category. There is something about those spaces – at least, the spaces that I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into – that feels freeing, weightless almost. I’ve almost always experienced an atmosphere of calm of the kind described by Chris Goode, even when the making itself might be at its most frantic. As when walking, I feel that I am in a place somehow apart, yet still closely connected with the world outside. And then, of course, there’s that breathless thrill of witnessing the moments when stuff really happens, when discoveries are made for the very first time and the thinking in the room suddenly shifts.

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I wonder if part of the reason why I loved Secret Theatre Show 5 so much was that it takes place in a rehearsal room – more specifically, the rehearsal room at the Lyric Hammersmith, where the Secret Theatre company have been experimenting for the past year. This space could not be more appropriate for the company’s latest show, which feels in many ways like the absolute expression of the collective way of working that the ensemble have been playing with over a process of months. It is a piece which is clearly born from this particular group of people and from the room that they have created together; the room that we now sit in, with them.

Walking in, everything about the framing of the piece immediately appeals to me. The intimate sharing of the space, the inbuilt risk and spontaneity, the visible traces of the company’s process on the very walls of the room. And watching it produces the palpable sensation of sharing a room with a group of people just having a brilliant time together – a sensation which is fiercely infectious. It’s thoughtful and complex and messy, but also joyful and chaotic, full of music, play, dancing. Oh, the dancing. Rarely (if ever) have I grinned and gurned so much during a piece of theatre.

Speaking to Joel Horwood (who acted as dramaturg on this show) afterwards, he told me that the starting provocations for the piece were community, hope and transcendence. Add joy and anarchy to that list and – without giving any more away – that just about captures what the company have produced.

I can’t pretend that Show 5 is perfect. When I see it, still early in the preview run, there are moments that stutter, while I wonder if it needs a slightly more robust dynamic at its heart to drive it along. But its imperfections only make me more fond of it. Not for a minute to dismiss its intelligence, my reaction to Show 5 operated firmly on the level of feeling rather than intellect. It made my heart skip, sing and burst. It made me want to go back again and again and again, both to watch the shifts in the piece and to be swallowed whole by it once more. I just fucking loved it.

There is, as ever, more to write about. I want to pin down why I was so utterly, strangely compelled by A String Section and everything it so implicitly yet so powerfully says about being a woman; to capture the spine-tingling marriage of music and storytelling in The Bullet and the Bass Trombone; to unpack the almost unbearable tension that pervades Ivo van Hove’s astonishing production of A View from the Bridge, which I finally saw on Friday night; to write once again about what a tight, gripping piece of writing Grounded is and how much of a rock star Lucy Ellinson is in it.

But every wander comes to a halt, and I fear I have already rambled (in both senses of the word) too much. So I will bring my (metaphorical) feet full circle and end, as I began, with Solnit:

“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”

(The photos above were all taken on some of my favourite walks, and I also used a couple of them in my write-up of The Forest and the Field – a meander in prose if ever there was one)