Friday, 15 May 2015

Theatre review: High Society

Kevin Spacey's final piece of programming at the Old Vic is a musical and, after his recent performance at the Olivier Awards, as a special treat he doesn't turn up on stage to sing himself. Instead, director Maria Friedman has assembled a cast many of whom were established names in straight theatre, before making inroads into musicals in recent years. Notably Kate Fleetwood, whom I'd not known as a musical actress before London Road, leading the cast of High Society as Tracy Lord. The wealthy heiress and socialite is preparing for the latest in a long line of weddings, to the humourless George (Richard Grieve.) Her resolve to settle for a safe-but-dull marriage is tested by the arrival of one of her ex-husbands: She and Dexter (Rupert Young) had a tempestuous relationship that was ended by his alcoholism. But he's on the wagon now, and the two clearly still have feelings for each other.

In addition, in a deal to stop a gossip rag from publishing salacious stories about the family, they've allowed a pair of journalists, Mike (Jamie Parker) and Liz (Annabel Scholey) to stay a few nights and report on the festivities.

For some reason Friedman has chosen to open the production with Joe Stilgoe, as wedding singer Joey Powell, doing a ten-minute improvised section in which he builds a piano concerto out of audience suggestions. It doesn't do a huge deal to get us into the party mood, and both regular readers may know how I feel about unnecessarily bulking up already-long shows. It leads into a first act that's decent, and always enlivened by Cole Porter's classics - Parker and Scholey have fun with "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" - but never quite sparks into life. In fact Tom Pye's set, which sees any number of items glide up out of the in-the-round stage, is often the most memorable thing.

We go into the interval with a particularly misjudged set-piece in which the supporting cast wander around the Circle with illuminated model sailboats, which is so naff it really should have been cut in previews. But we come back to a much stronger second act: Opening with Parker and Young and a lively "Well, Did You Evah!" we go into an energetic dance sequence from choreographer Nathan M Wright. This seems to finally relax the actors into their characters, and Fleetwood and Parker have a lot of great moments - and some great physical humour - as Tracy decides to distract herself from her dilemma by flirting with Mike.

Jeff Rawle as drunken Uncle Willie also gets to come into his own in this act (although the storyline where he and Christopher Ravenscroft's Seth swap identities is utterly pointless,) and there's good support from Barbara Flynn as Tracy's mother and Ellie Bamber as her hyperactive sister. Porter's songs were always going to be the highlight, but between a messy plot and slow opening the show really takes its time coming to life - but it's worth sticking with as it flies high once it does.

High Society by Cole Porter, Arthur Kopit and Susan Birkenhead is booking until the 22nd of August at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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