Theatre review: Tipping the Velvet
Mainstreaming the Queer
Adapted from Sarah Waters' novel, which has already been made into a television serial, Tipping the Velvet is a picaresque tale of early 20th century lesbianism. Beginning in the provinces, where a local girl is enchanted by a music hall male impersonator, and travelling through a London on the brink of social change, it serves as an overview of a hidden history.
There is considerable imagination in the structuring of Laura Wade's adaptation: the episodes are presented as if in a vaudeville cabaret. An encounter with a society lady is an aerial routine, a party climaxes with a rendition of The Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog', while the plot is hurried along by David Cardy's master of ceremonies. Unfortunately, the nature of the novel, which meanders through the heroine's adventures, does not offer much dramatic tension, with any jeopardy rapidly resolved. Even when Sally Messham's Nancy is forcibly abducted, the MC quickly dispels any tension by pointing out that it is not as violent as it appears.
With a title that is a euphemism for oral sex, and the heroine being, variously, a kept submissive, a drag artist a passionate campaigner for women's rights, Tipping the Velvet promises sexual provocation but gives only titillation. When Nancy is hung up next to pig carcasses (a symbol of her sudden desolation), the production can't resist playing it for laughs and her attempt to win sympathy from her socialist lover descends into a montage of popular songs that strips them of their depth and meaning. And 'I Wanna Be Your Dog', even with an added dildo on the costume, lacks the raw desire of The Stooges' version when transformed into jolly vaudeville.
The final conflict – when Nancy has to decide between her earnest, socialist lover and returning to her first love and possibly the stage – is drained of dramatic tension, since her first love is now a shadow of her former glamour. Some scenes do manage to have a cabaret cohesion, such as Nancy's speech to the socialist demonstration, in which she elegantly nails the exclusion of women from even leftist political protest. And the cast, jumping between roles, are uniformly excellent. However, the production never achieves more than a frisson of queerness.
Tipping the Velvet is currently on tour.