After taking Top Hat around the country on a regional tour, Summer Strallen and Tom Chambers are starring in the West End transfer. They talk to Matthew Hemley about the show’s appeal and how their differing career paths have led them to become dance partners
Tom Chambers (Jerry Travers) and Summer Strallen (Dale Tremont) in Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
It’s raining hard outside the Aldwych Theatre, but inside Summer has arrived - Summer Strallen that is, and she’s brought cup cakes with her. One of these baked treats is handed to the stage door manager, who beams with delight before gushing about “how lovely” Strallen is. Strallen, meanwhile, has disappeared into the depths of the backstage area of the theatre, where a few moments later I join her in her dressing room.
Here I witness another of the Primrose Hill-purchased cupcakes being dished out - this time to the company manager of Top Hat, the show currently running at the Aldwych in which Strallen stars alongside Tom Chambers. Chambers, incidentally, is meant to be with us, but he’s running late, I learn from the now cup cake-wielding company manager, because he’s parking his car.
This leaves me time to acquaint myself with Strallen, who is looking extremely casual prior to her matinee performance - she’s make-up free, and wearing a black hoodie, with her hair tied back. She seems very relaxed and happy to chat away until Chambers comes.
We talk about last month’s Oliviers, which saw her sister, Scarlett - who is appearing down the road in Singin’ in the Rain - lose out in the best actress in a musical category, and about Strallen’s own role in Love Never Dies and what her experience of being in this was.
Then, just as things get juicy, Chambers bursts in, a bundle of energy, who greets me with a shake of the hand before asking if he can wet his hair down. It is looking rather fluffy and bouncy, like he’s just got out of bed, though of course I don’t say so. Strallen, however, does - telling him that he really should get it cut, because it’s looking too long.
It seems quite personal on Strallen’s part, until you remember that the two have been touring together for five months in Top Hat prior to its West End run, and so do know each other fairly well. They are happy to poke fun at each other, and give the impression of being good friends.
Which is just as well, because in the show, for anyone who does not know the RKO film on which it is based, the pair play lovers Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont, the duo played on screen by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“It’s a love story and it’s not complicated,” Chambers says. “It’s boy meets girl, but it has misconstrued identity. Dale, played by Summer, thinks my character is someone else, and so he gets physically and metaphorically slapped.”
Strallen adds: “We meet when Jerry is dancing in a hotel room and I am trying to sleep in the room below. I try to find out who this idiot is and see this wonderfully handsome man dancing around with a hat stand and it’s love at first sight.”
The mistaken identity of which Chambers refers to is based on the fact Dale believes Jerry is a married man. In fact, she thinks he’s the producer-husband of her own friend, Madge Hardwick, which is why, Strallen says, “she gets so upset”.
As well as the farcical nature of the story, the musical features 15 Irving Berlin songs, including Cheek to Cheek and Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain. The original film only used five, but Strallen says the extra ten chosen are “absolutely perfect and fit beautifully”.
“The whole reason why Kenny Wax, the producer, wanted to put this show on is so we don’t lose Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and that era,” Strallen says. “And it’s what people want at the moment - a bit of escapism.”
She reveals, too, that the show uses around 50% of the film’s script, with Chambers interjecting that the stage production has been “tweaked for a modern audience”. In fact, during its time on the road, the show has undergone several changes. Chambers says the cast and crew were “constantly cutting their teeth” on the road, and that audiences in the West End will now get to see the best production possible. Strallen, meanwhile, thinks this is the norm for theatre now - meaning shows begin life playing regional theatres, get fine tuned, and then come into the West End.
“We have had a lot of script changes and song changes,” Strallen says. “Songs have been added, songs have been taken away and it’s been a real whirlwind. But it seems this is the way the West End is going - with Ghost opening first in Manchester, and even as far back as Mary Poppins, when Cameron Mackintosh had the idea to take it away and work it out. It doesn’t mean the audience is getting any worse a show. It’s just they get slightly different songs or different scripts, but the basic shape of the show is pretty much the same.”
She adds: “They [Top Hat audiences] did get a West End standard show on tour. And in fact the set was much bigger and more lavish on the road than the one we have here. So they got quite a good deal.”
In fact, Chambers says, the tour required nine articulated lorries to transport the set and costumes around from venue to venue. He also adds that, as well as being good for regional theatre audiences, the tour allowed him and Strallen to get to know each other better.
“We had not worked together before,” he says. “So you have to learn your bodies and how they want to move together, so it was great having the chance to discover that.”
On a personal level, Chambers also used the tour to experiment with how he should be playing Jerry.
“I started out being told to go down this heightened Fred Astaire pastiche-route,” he reveals. “And we soon discovered that was wrong, so we reined it in and pulled it back.”
As Chambers is telling me this, Strallen starts to giggle, as she recalls his early performances as Jerry: “My lips are sealed,” she laughs. “I am saying nothing.”
What she does say, however, is that neither are “trying to be Fred and Ginger playing Jerry and Dale”.
“We are playing Jerry and Dale, and that is it,” she says. “They are just roles, but we are lucky we have a prototype of Fred and Ginger, who were so perfect and wonderful, to inspire us. Everyone asks us if they are big shoes to fill? Well, of course they are - Fred and Ginger are absolutely perfect. We endeavour to make it as good as them and to have the chemistry they do.”
And here she looks to Tom, before saying: “And I think we’re doing alright.”
For Strallen, who was only recently seen playing Meg Giry in Love Never Dies at the nearby Adelphi Theatre, appearing on the West End stage is nothing new, but for Chambers, his appearance in Top Hat marks his West End debut. He is best known as a TV actor, who went on to win Strictly Come Dancing in 2008. As he takes to the West End stage, he knows all too well the pressure he is under.
“There is no doubt that this was initially immensely terrifying,” he admits. “I wished for this kind of material to arrive on the scene for so many years, and now it’s finally arrived it’s like, ‘What have I done?’. Now I have to go through with it and do it. Be careful what you wish for has never been truer in my case.
“This is the first of everything for me - the first time I have pretty much been on stage, apart from doing one musical at the Sunderland Empire - White Christmas - which could have been my warm up lap. Thank God we had five months on tour, as I think I would be six feet under now. And Summer would have been the one with the spade.”
They both laugh at this, but it’s quite clear, when it comes to experience, Strallen is the one who, as well as doing most of the talking, knows musical theatre like the back of her hand. As well as Love Never Dies, she has appeared in shows such as The Sound of Music, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Boy Friend, and has been nominated three times for an Olivier Award.
“I have been doing musicals a long time,” she says. “So I have had to learn dance routines for auditions and things like that, whereas Tom has been doing the telly route. I do have a brain of lightning speed.”
Chambers, meanwhile, studied at Guildford School of Acting, where he says he had one compulsory class in ballet, tap and jazz a week, which he compares to learning enough French to “get by”. And so for him, his stint on Strictly Come Dancing was definitely where he learned what he now knows about dance. “It was five months of one to one tuition,” he recalls. “And from that you really get a sense of the stamina required.”
Strallen joins in here, adding: “And picking up the steps every week to a different routine is no mean feat. The routines on Strictly are only a minute and a half, so less than those in a musical, but it’s the same premise of having to pick things up quickly.”
As our interview comes to a close, I ask both of them how long the show is planned to run for. Strallen says the show will run “as long as people keep coming”, and Chambers agrees that they are there “as long as the audience is here”.
“The moment they start dwindling, is the moment the producer starts tightening his belt and starts saying, ‘I think we need to jump ship’,” he says. But Strallen thinks they are helped by the fact it’s based on an old film, which many people will know, as they do with Singin’ in the Rain at the Palace Theatre.
“Ticket prices are so expensive, people have to know what they are going to see,” she says. “Jukebox musicals served a purpose at a time when people needed those sort of things, and now we are doing the same, in a slightly more classy way, I think. I love the jukebox shows - they have a sense of fun and everyone knows the songs and has a good time, which is what going to the theatre is about.
“If we can do that in a way which brings really classy things to the stage, then so be it.”
• Top Hat is currently booking until January 26, 2012, at the Aldwych Theatre, London. To read our review go to www.thestage.co.uk/reviews