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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

A tip-top trip to TOP HAT in Sonning

To help lure reviewers to a tiny little theatre the Mill at Sonning, located in a former mill barn near Reading, its ever-resourceful PR Kevin Wilson escorted them by train from Paddington to Reading, then cabbed us from there the remainder of the short journey. (On Saturday, with a train strike occurring, he repeated the trip for another party, but this time by minibus from Paddington).  There were fifteen of us on Friday, mostly bloggers (myself included), as well as THE STAGE’s Paul Vale.

I know I’ve been critical of some in the blogging community — as I have of some of my colleagues in the critical community, too — in the past, and Kevin wisely reminded me (and them) of a need for civility on the trip. I replied it was fine as I was an adult; and the evening passed without incident. (Though I’m not sure I would have endeared myself to the party by winning the theatre quiz Kevin set us over dinner beforehand….)

Nevertheless, I totally understand the need to embrace the bloggers at regional theatres like this; without us, there would have been just one print critic there on Friday. And of course the nationals can’t be everywhere.

TOP HAT takes its title from a 1935 film that Irving Berlin provided a handful of songs for, including the famous title one, but augments them with more from the Berlin catalogue, much as CRAZY FOR YOU added to the score for the Gerswhins’ 30s hit GIRL CRAZY, to create a ‘new’ jukebox book musical of their greatest hits. Though the book — which pivots on a case of mistaken identity that takes two acts and nearly three hours to resolve — may be more than a little stretched out, it has some good old-fashioned jokes and a score that is so full of swooning melody that I was utterly seduced. And in Jonny Labey (above right) it has a dynamic and dashing charmer of a song and dance man who captivates with his effortless air of insouciance, and is ideally partnered by the glamorously sophisticated Billie-Kay (above left).

The show, directed by Jonathan O’Boyle and choreographed by Ashley Nottingham, is an utter delight, and finds this little passion project theatre — run by Sally Hughes (whose parents founded it) since 1984 — punching far above its weight. (I can’t wait to return next summer for its revival of GYPSY, from May 24-July 15; though I will in future plan to go to a weekend matinee, instead of an evening performance; we didn’t get back to Paddington until well after midnight. Thank God I’d booked myself into a hotel five minutes from the station, but others weren’t so lucky). 

Another helping of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman

Ibsen’s JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN Is usually a hard play to love; each of its three lead characters — a disgraced banker and the two sisters who have sought his love — are so wrapped up in their own neediness or contempt for the others that none are likeable.

But Nick Hytner’s production — in a new version by Lucinda Coxon — gives it a fierce   contemporaneity and dramatic drive. And I just had to return to Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Lia Williams — three of our very finest contemporary stage actors — play it again before it closed on Saturday. We don’t see this play very often; I also saw the only previous production I saw twice, which starred the late Paul Scofied, with Vannessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins. When actors are this good, you want to savour every moment.

There’s (inevitably) a Lear-like quality to Simon Russell Beale (a role he has also played) as he picks over the mess his bad decisions have wrought upon his life, but which he refuses to take any personal responsibility for. But there’s also monumental hurt and damage to the women, whose selfish reckonings come with a high price of their own; and Higgins and Williams articulate them with real physicality, not least for Williams who uses her own serious leg injury last summer in service of the role that makes it look like an acting choice. 


My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here:

This week’s openings in London include the West End transfer, a year after its Young Vic premiere, of James Graham’s BEST OF ENEMIES (opening tonight at the Noel Coward), with Broadway’s Zachary Quinto (replacing Charies Edwards) opposite David Harewood, as Gore Vidal and William Buckley Jr respectively; a new production of OTHELLO at the National on Wednesday, directed by deputy artistic director Clint Dyer and starring Giles Terera in the title role; and Clive Rowe as Mother Goose (pictured below) in the panto of the same name at Hackney Empire on Thursday.

This weekend another production of the same panto is launched at Brighton’s Theatre Royal with Ian McKellen in the title role, ahead of a Christmas season at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, followed by a national tour., Meanwhile, Broadway has a new play,  Ain’t No Mo’ (first seen at the Public Theatre in 2019) opening on Thursday, and A BEAUTIFUL NOISE, a biographical musical about pop hit maker Neil Diamond, opening on Sunday.

See you here on Thursday…

If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: (though not as regularly on weekends)