High Society***** (Old Vic)

Posted: May 17, 2015 in Theatre

high society

Well, did you evah?! I really wasn’t expecting very much at all of this. The 1940 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story is, of course, pure bliss, but Philip Barry’s stage play which preceded it disappointed when it was performed at this same theatre in 2005 and the 1956 film musical adaptation, High Society, has never felt quite as good as it should have been. Furthermore, this stage version of the film musical has not been a big hit anywhere before and it is brought here without the benefit of big star names on the posters. However that last point works very much in this production’s favour, because, given a choice between mis-cast big stars and lesser knowns who fill their roles perfectly, the second option always wins hands down and superb casting is one of two main reasons why the show now hits the heights. The other is the work of director Maria Friedman, who, along with her choreographer Nathan M Wright, turns the show into one long party, fizzing as much as the Champagne that is on constant flow. It helps that the Old Vic is still in the round, thereby making the audience part of the festivities, although it is a shame that we are not offered a small glass of bubbly, maybe just Prosecco, to get us in the mood; with ticket prices as they are here, this is not such an unreasonable request. The theatre ushers are dressed as party waiters and the hired entertainer, Joey Powell (Joe Stilgoe) takes to the grand piano to amuse us with a brilliant 10 minute improvised routine – can this be the first show in history to get a rapturous ovation before it has even begun? The party at the Long Island estate of the very rich Lord family, is to celebrate the second wedding of daughter Tracy Samantha to a very dull social inferior. It is gatecrashed by Tracy’s ex, Dexter (still a “one gal guy”) and two paparazzi, Mike and Liz. The appearance of classical actor Kate Fleetwood (she is off to play the murderous Medea after this) as Tracy comes as a surprise, but, pitching her performance much closer to Katherine Hepburn than to Grace Kelly, she sets the tone of the show and is a true delight. Rupert Young is not quite Cary Grant, but he is a lot more comfortable in the role of Dexter than was Bing Crosby, whilst Annabel Scholey also scores as the lovestruck (for Mike), but constantly overlooked Liz. The plum role in most versions of this story is that of Mike, the cynical hack who sneers at the lifestyle of the snobbish filthy rich whilst himself grasping at the opportunity to revel in it. Frank Sinatra put an indelible stamp on the role and James Stewart won an Oscar for it, but now think only Jamie Parker, who makes it completely his own. Barbara Flynn, Ellie Bamber, Jeff Rawle, Richard Grieve and Christopher Ravenscroft all feature strongly in support, even though Arthur Kopit’s book is forced to condense sub-plots in the original play in order to make room for the musical numbers. Almost all of Cole Porter’s songs are now standards, so much so that over-familiarity could have made them boring, but it is here that Friedman and Wright really triumph, reinventing and reinvigorating each of them with imagination and zest so as to make them seem fresh and new; As performed by Parker and Scholey, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is simply dazzling and, when Young, perched on a balcony duets True Love with Fleetwood, who is standing beside a pool of blue light on which a miniature yacht is circling, the whole theatre is reduced to tearful silence. The party gets into full swing in an intoxicating second act, the highlight of which is the full company displaying shameless decadence for a lengthy and dizzying Well Did You Evah/Let’s Misbehave sequence. Designer Tom Pye, unable to use backdrops, manages to evoke an air of opulence, with floral displays, gleaming furnishings and pianos popping up from beneath and ornate balconies on opposite sides of the stage, which provide a home for the orchestra. What a swell party this is!

Performance date: 16 May 2015

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