Entertainment & Arts

Lesbian love story Tipping the Velvet earns strong reviews

Tipping the Velvet production still Image copyright JOHAN PERSSON
Image caption The story follows Nancy Astley (left, played by Sally Messham) and her voyage of sexual self-discovery

A stage adaptation of Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, a Victorian lesbian coming-of-age story, has earned positive reviews from critics.

The play, at London's Hammersmith, charts Nancy 'Nan' Astley's voyage of emotional and sexual discovery.

Broadwayworld.com called it "a shoo-in success" while the Guardian said it offered "a rousing tribute to feminist principles".

The book was previously adapted for television by the BBC in 2002.

The new play has been adapted by playwright Laura Wade, who has teamed up again with director Lyndsey Turner, who she worked with on her play Posh.

"Wade ingeniously frames the story by presenting it through the eyes of a gavel-wielding Victorian music-hall chairman of the kind made familiar by TV's The Good Old Days. This pays off beautifully in the first half, which is a hymn to theatre," said the Guardian in its three-star review.

At the opening night on Monday, Wade told the BBC: "There's so much theatre already in the book, it was about finding that and drawing it out and because of the Victorian age of this theatre, it just seemed like a perfect match."

The Stage called the show "playful but frustrating".

"It takes the history and traditions of music hall and mashes them together with something altogether more modern. Music, comedy, circus and illusion are all thrown into the mix," the review read.

"Master of Ceremonies David Cardy narrates the story of Nancy, an oyster girl from Whitstable who falls hard and deep for Kitty, a male impersonator and music hall star, before taking to the boards and becoming a star herself. The songs they perform are not music hall numbers, but rather more recent: Prince and the Pet Shop Boys, a little bit of Miley Cyrus, a dash of Bonnie Tyler."

Most publications lamented the show's near three-hour running time, which Broadwayworld.com said "would certainly benefit from a snip".

Image caption The BBC's adaptation of Waters' novel was known for its steamy sex scenes

The TV version, which starred Rachael Stirling as Nan and Spooks star Keeley Hawes as cross-dressing stage star Kitty, was famed for its steamy sex scenes.

The stage adaptation instead represents the passionate sexual acts with astonishing aerial stunt work reminiscent of Cirque Du Soleil.

"We wanted to create something on stage that showed how those sexual encounters really felt and the different emotional character of them, to convey that emotional pull to the audience," Wade explained.

"Sex is always rather difficult to do on stage because you can't have close ups in the same way that you can on film so you have to find a different way of telling that story."

The cast was led by newcomer Sally Messham, who plays Nan from shy oyster girl to stage star, to sex slave to political activist. It is the young actress's first role since graduating from RADA.

"This is my first professional theatre job, straight in at the deep end," she admitted.

"I picked up the book as soon as I got the role and I loved it, it's like a Dickensian novel, you get a lot of Victorian novels about gay men and very few about lesbians and what Laura and Sarah have done is to give them a rich history."

It is still rare to see women's sexuality portrayed with such frankness on stage, something Waters herself has noted.

"I do go to the theatre a lot but it's only when you see a stage with a lot of women on it, telling a young woman's story that you realise how rarely you do see that," she told the BBC on opening night.

"So it has been really refreshing for me to see Laura's fantastic script. It's also lovely to know the book still has a currency, still appeals to people. Since I wrote it 20 years ago, a lot has changed since then."

Tipping the Velvet will run at the Lyric Hammersmith until 24 October, before moving to the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 28 October - 14 November.

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