In Kevin Spacey’s first season as Artistic Director of the Old Vic he staged The Philadelphia Story starring himself and Jennifer Ehle, so it is perhaps appropriate that the musical version of this tale, High Society, should now book-end his reign. And it seems that ending will be a triumphant one in a dazzling and fizzy revival of the much loved film. I don’t often write about musicals here and I tend to have mixed feelings about them; in general preferring the classics to a more modern tendency to string a load of pop songs together around a half-baked story.
For years I just didn’t see any musicals at all and there still exists a certain snobbery about them as not ‘proper’ theatre, whatever that is supposed to mean. As a critic, the quality of theatre I see can range from breath-takingly stunning to offensively bad, and a musical is no more likely to be poorly produced and performed than a Shakespeare play – and in fact the lowest star ratings I’ve ever given are for terrible interpretations of Shakespeare, while recent revivals of Spend, Spend, Spend, The Dreaming and the West End transfer of Memphis have been a delight. High Society may be all about snobbery but that should not apply to the genre itself – yes there are bad musicals but there are also a lot of bad plays, believe me I’ve seen them!
So, I’m going to put my hat into the ring now and say I actually like some musicals and I’m not ashamed. I’ve seen the stalwarts like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and Hairspray and loved them all, which doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously appreciate a fine Hamlet or go to see the recent A View from the Bridge 3 times between the Young Vic and Wyndhams because it was so wonderful, it’s just one of those contradictions about people that life is full of. It probably all began watching the big 50s and 60s musicals as a child with my Nan of which Singing in the Rain and My Fair Lady were our favourite. For some reason High Society rather passed us by but then she never really cared for Frank Sinatra.
So with lots of positive reviews and a chance to see it in the round, the Old Vic’s new show promised much. On the eve of her second wedding to a very dull man Tracy Lord has doubts exacerbated by the sudden appearance of her neighbour and ex-husband C K Dexter Haven who is also still in love with her. Their dilemma is diverted by the appearance of two undercover society journalists who are blackmailing Tracy’s father to get access to the wedding or they will publish a compromising story about him and a dancer. As the pre-wedding party gets underway Tracy finds herself drawn to journalist Mike, but is he just a passing fancy because she can’t have the man she really wants? As dawn breaks after a drunken evening just who will Tracy walk down the aisle with?
The Old Vic round space is always something to marvel at; built above the stalls seats to create a more intimate space and now wherever you sit in the theatre the view is pretty impressive. You arrive to find a glitzy party going on with a piano player Joe Stilgoe taking requests and on our night somehow merging Rule Britannia, Strangers in the Night and The Wheels on the Bus into one musical piece. By the time the show starts the pre-warmed audience is already in a jovial party mood, aided by the art-deco influenced side boxes which hold the orchestra and the clever pop-up set by Tom Pye which allows tables, chairs and pianos to rise and lower into the floor. When empty it looks like the intricate Time Lord-like design of the pocket watch carried by Dr Who in the David Tennant era.
The set pieces are rather impressive, the best of which is the party scene at the start of Act 2 which unites singing, dancing, piano playing and some amazing costumes to create a throbbing atmosphere of sound and colour, just right for Tracy’s last hurrah before marriage. Maria Friedman’s direction here is perfect and even if they didn’t bother with the rest of the story you’d go home feeling you’d seen some of the best dance sequences in town. Whatever you may think of Tracy by this point she can clearly throw a hell of a party and the cast are obviously having a wonderful time. But that same verve and style is brought to the rest of the scenes, creating the Lord’s outside breakfast table with real hot plate, drawing room and swimming pool. In fact the pool is the scene of the show’s most tender moment as Tracy at her lowest ebb sails a little boat across the brilliantly projected water while she and Dexter sing True Love, before the waters rise up over her.
The cast is excellent and Kate Fleetwood, who previously made a superb Lady Macbeth opposite Patrick Stewart, takes most of the honours as the contradictory Tracy. She starts waspish and self-satisfied before realising the gravity of what she’s about to do, cutting herself off from Dexter for ever, but revives as drink gives her a flirtatious bravado and a fantastic chemistry with Jamie Parker playing the journalist Mike. Parker is the main reason I wanted to see this, after a brilliant Henry V at the Globe a couple of years ago, and in the Sinatra role here proves he can do everything, bringing great energy and fine voice to the scenes. It helps of course that because of Sinatra his role gets most of the best songs – Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and You’re Sensational as well as the ensemble tunes Well Did You Evah? And Let’s Misbehave. I could never quite see why Tracy didn’t pick Mike, they always seemed so much more suited, and that is certainly reinforced by Fleetwood and Parker’s charismatic partnership.
The problem here is the character of Dexter – Rupert Young is arguably a better singer that actor but the part itself always feels very underwritten. He spars with Tracy nicely early on and their love song is a tender moment but for much of the production he is just an observer watching it all happen, so it’s hard to believe in them as a couple. Her family clearly adore him but the audience don’t get a chance to know him as well as the fun-loving Mike whose prejudices are shown to thaw in the company of the partying Lords. This is not at all the fault of the production but perhaps this is why my Nan overlooked it, it just has a slightly unsatisfactory happy ending that you can’t quite believe in. And I remember feeling the same about The Philadelphia Story here several years ago.
None of that detracts from a fine night of entertainment with great supporting performances in the subplots from Barbara Flynn as Mother Lord, Ellie Bamber as Dinah, Christopher Ravenscroft as Seth Lord and Annabel Scholey as photographer Liz Imbrie. Maria Friedman has created quite a spectacle down at the Old Vic and from the beginning establishes an atmosphere that engages the audience in the celebratory feel of the whole thing, no matter where you sit in the auditorium. For once sitting in the slips in the Lilian Bayliss circle (very top) pays off and for just £16 you get a great view of the marvellous choreography without having to spend a fortune. Through the Lord’s soiree, you’re also there to celebrate the final moments of Kevin Spacey’s decade as Artistic Director and this bubbly production of High Society will ensure he leaves a memorable legacy. So forget the musicals stigma and come on down; it really is quite a party.
High Society is at the Old Vic until 22 August, tickets start at £16 and I can recommend these cheap slips seats in Row X of the Lilian Baylis Circle for actually a very good view. Other concessions are available including reduced prices for under 25 year olds. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1