Rebecca Thornhill brings Top Hat to Festival

Rebecca Thornhill  as Madge Hardwick, Charlotte Gooch  as Dale Tremont in Top Hat. Pic: Comp
Rebecca Thornhill as Madge Hardwick, Charlotte Gooch as Dale Tremont in Top Hat. Pic: Comp
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PUTTIN’ on their top hats, tyin’ up their white ties, and brushin’ off their tails - that’s what they’ll be doing at the Festival Theatre for the next two weeks, as the award-winning Irving Berlin musical Top Hat glides on stage.

Direct from its West End triumphant run, where it won three Olivier awards, Best New Musical, Best Choreography and Best Costumes, this song and dance spectacular brings back to life Hollywood’s golden age of tap and the magic of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Packed full of popular classics such as Cheek To Cheek, Top Hat, Let’s Face The Music And Dance and Puttin’ On The Ritz, Top Hat tells the story of Broadway sensation Jerry Travers who dances his way across Europe to win the heart of society girl Dale Tremont.

A romantic comedy celebrating 1930s song, style and romance, Top Hat boasts more than 200 beautiful costumes, breathtaking choreography and a love story to set the pulse racing. It began life in 1935 as, what was described at the time, as a ‘screwball movie’.

Made by RKO, and starring Astaire and Rogers as Travers and Tremont, it was the most successful of the duo’s partnership and the studio’s biggest earner of the thirties.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it goes something like this: When Travers comes to London to star in a show produced by impresario Horace Hardwick, he meets Tremont and determines to win her affections.

Along the way he crosses paths with a host of characters including the indomitable Madge Hardwick, Horace’s long-suffering wife, a role played by West End star Rebecca Thornhill in the touring production.

“I saw Top Hat three times in London, my best friend was in it, and I absolutely loved it,” says the actress, who has toured to the Capital many times in the past. “I actually auditioned for it before, for a different part, and then this time around I thought I’d go for Madge who is quite a force to be reckoned with.

“She loves spending Horace’s money and has to keep his flirting under control, but she is kind of brutal which makes her very funny. She has gag after gag after gag.”

The first show to bring Thornhill to the city was, bizarrely, Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure in which she starred alongside Jon Pertwee and then Colin Baker, when it materialised at the Playhouse.

“I was about 21,” she recalls, “and I got some great experience from doing that; then I came back with Les Miserables as Cosette. We were here for about six months and I loved Edinburgh, my little haunt was Valvona & Crolla’s in Jenners.”

Thornhill has been back many times since, but reveals it’s a while since she has toured.

“I actually went on the ships a while ago and saw the world, so I do like to travel and see different things. This show is great because we are doing two weeks in each city, so there’s time to get to know each place.”

Thornhill’s passion for musical theatre is evident from the moment you speak to her.

“I started dancing when I was three because I had very weak ankles,” she explains. “Then I did a lot of amateur dramatics - I became familiar with all the shows from the amateurs. I loved it so much that when I left school I wanted to keep on doing it and trained in musical theatre.”

Thornhill’s stage credits include productions of From Here To Eternity, Mary Poppins, The Full Monty, Witches Of Eastwick, which also brought her to the Capital, Oklahoma! Cats, South Pacific and the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun. Her favourite, however, if pushed, is Me and My Girl.

“That’s probably closest to my heart because it was my first West End show and I eventually got to play the lead on tour. It’s just a piece that isn’t broken, it works every time and is probably the best musical ever written.”

The actress has also appeared in three production of Les Mis.

“Each time in a different role,” she says. “Maybe one day, when I am a little bit older I’ll go back and play Madame Thenardier [the outrageous wife of the inn-keeper], although they have cut it down so much there is hardly anything left of the part. It used to be a big, big role.”

It is a trend in modern musicals to cut dialogue in favour of bouncing from song to song, and not one of which everyone approves. If parts are cut too much the piece “loses the soul of what it is about” she protests.

“Give me a good story line and I’m hooked. That’s what I love about Top Hat, it has everything, a strong story and great numbers. The dancing is amazing. The comedy is light and enjoyable. If you remember the old black and white film, which I am a big fan of, it’s like watching that come alive in colour on stage.

“We’ve had people standing at the end, and that has been really lovely. There is nothing worse than getting no reaction from the audience, so it is special when you get that standing ovation.”

Top Hat, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, tonight-Saturday October 18, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£45, 0131-529 6000