Tipping the Velvet (Lyric, Hammersmith)
Laura Wade brings Sarah Waters' bestselling novel to the stage in a new adaptation, directed by Lyndsey Turner
Sarah Waters's first novel has been adapted by Laura Wade to provide a theatrical metaphor of sexual awakening and fulfilment not dissimilar to this same theatre's colourful staging of Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus a few years back, and at the same turn of the 19th century.
It's fairly well done in Lyndsey Turner's production which is emceed by David Cardy as a Victorian music hall chairman with a magic gavel, fitted out anachronistically with pop songs by Prince ("You don't have to be beautiful to turn me on") and presented as a series of animated tableaux as Nancy Astley, the oyster girl from Whitstable, experiences a Sapphic seduction, goes on the stage and then underground.
The great joy of Waters's novel is not only its physiological account of sexual impulse and discovery – it's far more erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey or run-of-the-mill chick lit – but its gorgeous depiction of various social milieus: the music hall, the street corner life of pimps and renters, the lesbian ladies who lunch with Nancy's orgiastic "master" Diana Letheby and then the rising tide of Fabian, Corbynite socialist fervour as Nancy "comes out" in the East End melting pot and finds domestic happiness.
Wade's script is a fleet and skilful distillation of dialogue and narrative chronology. If anything, it's far too faithful to the original, not wild enough in content or structure. And Turner's staging is hidebound by its repetitive music hall format – Cardy starts jauntily but becomes dull and tiresome – and Nancy's two forays into aerial sex, first in a twirling rope act with her co-star Kitty; then in a more complicated contraption of straps and leather with deviant Di – are pleasing enough but not all that salacious.
Newcomer Sally Messham makes a cheerful, open-hearted Nancy, and Laura Rogers is a slinky but insufficiently viperish Kitty Butler, the star who takes on her new fan, liberates her into the pleasures of cross-dressing and absorbs her into the act, as well as her bed.
But there's nothing really sexy, or even glowing, about them as a couple, nor is there anything startling about the performance on the halls that made them stars, though not in the same league as Burlington Bertie (Vesta Tilley) herself, a talismanic point of reference for Waters, or Hetty King ("All the nice girls love a sailor"). You could envisage a more raucous sort of evening with this material at, say, Stratford East.
The Cavendish ladies are disappointingly pallid, too, and the Bethnal Green socialist rally at the end – where, in the novel, Waters ingeniously draws Nancy's various romantic threads together – becomes a pedestrian side-show of slogans and tub-thumping, though Adelle Leonce's do-gooding Flo Banner is sweet enough.
Wade's is a better script than I remember Andrew Davies's being for the BBC in 2002; but that version was far sexier - and far more explicit - with Anna Chancellor as a gloriously predatory Diana and Rachael Stirling (Nancy) wittily describing herself and Keeley Hawes (Kitty), in that particular BBC regime, as "Greg's dykes."
Tipping the Velvet runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 24 October.