Thursday 22 March 2018

Stage: Time for trio to face the music... and dance

Featherweights: Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch star in Top Hat
Featherweights: Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch star in Top Hat

Maggie Armstrong

Ten years ago, a musical was visited upon Dublin called The Ha'penny Bridge, a work of paddywhackery performed in The Point and adjudged terrible. We welcome two of its cast members back for a musical that is not only tolerable, it's enjoyable - Top Hat at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

John Conroy, welcome. The 65-year-old Dubliner plays Bates, the dour and disobliging butler described as a "wedding present".

Alan Burkitt, welcome. The 33-year-old dancing king plays Jerry Travers, Fred Astaire's character in the 1935 movie.

Charlotte Gooch, welcome to you, too. The West End belle of 27 has been to the BGE Theatre with Dirty Dancing, and now plays coltish proto-feminist Dale Tremont.

The three were gathered around before a warm-up while Top Hat was in Canterbury.

Musical performers are people you want to surround yourself with if you need reminding that life isn't all that bad. The ritzy melodies, the coin-shaking tap-a-tap-tap, the shrieks from loyal fans all seem to imbue these super-humans with a permanent good-hair day. They never complain. Theatre actors can be tortured sorts. Musical stars shine on and keep the black night from closing in. These do anyway.

Bates (once you see Top Hat John Conroy's name will forever be Bates) grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin. His father had a hotel in Stoneybatter, The City Arms, where the boy "worked my stints". He studied catering at Cathal Brugha Street and worked in the Shelbourne Hotel before moving to London aged 23 to join the theatre. Like many an actor today, he worked in the catering business to pay his rent. But unlike anyone now, he got into the murky employment of a butler.

A friend had offered him work serving elite business suppers in The City. He did that for a lifetime. He has signed disclosures, served Margaret Thatcher - "She was fine. He was great fun, Denis" - worked with ex-army pedants who used measuring tape to check the width of the chairs from the table, and polished more crystal than he cares to remember.

"I can't say I enjoyed it," he says. "It was a way of making a few bob rather than waiting for the phone to ring and looking out the window."

But he has leapt at the typecasting it brought. "I'd shame-facedly go into auditions when I'm auditioning for a butler in my butler suit."

At 65, he is startlingly handsome. Tall, with enormous brown eyes and pixie ears. In Canterbury he was a comic windfall.

"My sort of stuff is Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer, that's what I'm good at," he admits.

Gooch is a white-blonde English girl who looks like Catherine Deneuve and laughs like Marilyn Monroe.

Co-star Burkitt is also too good to be true. He has a pink sparkle on his nose, probably incurred backstage. There is a lot of collateral prettiness in Top Hat, namely the Italian ostrich feather dress that spills all over the stage like a pillow fight.

Charlotte laughs: "So many feathers. Feathers in my dress, feathers in my mouth, feathers in my face, feathers in his face. The audience love that, because you can see them wafting around the stage. When the dress was brand new it was shedding a lot more."

Alan says: "Now it's a plucked chicken."

Charlotte gasps with laugher. "It's a bit of a nightmare sometimes to move in and dance in, and they do get stuck to our faces and stuck to your feet. It's very heavy, there's a lot of ostrich in there. It takes a while to negotiate the dress."

Charlotte doesn't mind about anything - not the pummelling maintenance regimes of a dancer, nor the double shows, nor the infinite hotel rooms after years on the road, nor the time she tripped off the stage in her four-inch gold heels and broke her ankle.

"As the show went on my foot was just getting fatter and fatter, and I was having to adjust the straps on the shoes to wider and wider!" she hoots with laughter. "You just sort of get on with it. It's a performance mentality - the show must go on."

She has been dancing since she was three. Alan has been dancing since he was five.

"It's hard though, training at school because you get so," he pauses. "...bullied. You get picked on, don't you, when you're a boy dancing and things."

Look how far he has come. To Dublin next. "We're dead excited," says Alan. They intend to enjoy their numbered days off. Alan wants to "go to Brown Thomas. spend some money", play rounders in parks, listen to bands in pubs. "And dancing," says Charlotte. "Go and have a jig."

A word of wisdom from Bates. "There's so much stuff coming into Dublin now... And families can't afford e100, quite understandably. So we're very aware of that. I think it's important that people realise, it's a big show that was in the West End. It's not a cut-down touring version." Trust the butler.

Top Hat, May 27 - June 6, at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

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