High Society

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Arthur Kopit, based on the play by Philip Barry
Ovation Theatre
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Production photo

No carols, no Santa, no snow (on stage - outside is a different matter), no elves, no dame, not even Scrooge or Tiny Tim but nevertheless this lively up-beat show with people skinny-dipping in the middle of the night is right on the button for a Christmastime night out.

Philip Barry's 1939 play about a couple of journos crashing a country house wedding party weekend to dig up sleaze and getting caught up in the romantic entanglements of the bride and her ex-husband was called The Philadelphia Story, as was the film version a year later, but when in 1956 MGM turned it into a musical, commissioning Cole Porter to write the numbers the location moved to Rhode Island and the title became High Society and when that became a stage show the location became Long Island. That gives a precedent for director John Plews decision to transpose it across the Atlantic and make the setting English. He places it in a Hampshire country house near Buckler's Hard on the Beaulieu River and it works a treat, though by keeping the reporter and his photographer partner American makes one wonder why a US scandal sheet would be so interested in an English businessman's private life. I makes a very pleasant change to hear American lyrics sung by English voices in English accents when so often British singers Americanise their voices when singing popular music.

This production makes it seem almost a through composed musical. Has Plews cut some of the spoken dialogue? With music, often a few bars from 'Who wants to be a millionaire?', accompanying the choreographed furniture and prop changes made by nimble-footed butlers and maids there is very little of the story that is not told in song and the tempo is maintained by almost non-stop action and Lee Proud's choreography. Fi Russel's simple set of transparent scrim goes through clever transformations but their simplicity places the emphasis on the performers - not least Nicola Martin, Brendan Matthew, Yasmin Wakefield and Adam Prichard as the household servants: their vitality and the playing of the band under musical director Tom Kelly give the whole show a momentum from which the familiar and much loved numbers seem to effortlessly emerge.

The audience warmed immediately to Peter Kenworthy's relaxed and charming Dexter Haven, the boat-builder who turns up for his ex-wife's wedding, his singing unforced and true. Bride Tracy Lord is putting on a bit of a performance for the journalists and it was not until a delicious drunk scene that Kirby Hughes really blossomed in the role (still hitting the high notes despite a throat infection and making coughs seem part of the intended business). Intended bridegroom ex-miner George gets a strong performance from Alex Wadham but he is far too nice for someone family and friends don't want her to marry, certainly not 'the last of the Neanderthals' as they describe him,, Despite their protestations of no class bias, this underlines their snobbishness rather than make it obvious she should ditch him. But Tracy's sister Dinah is a clear-headed little girl with no pretensions. She clearly adores Dexter and knows that he and Tracy should be back together. The family's own outspoken critic, she doesn't miss a thing in Jessica Bastick-Vines cocky, sharp-tongued characterisation.

This production places the emphasis on the family rather than the journalists but they are an excellent pairing in Brendan Cull, who makes it quite understandable why photographer Liz loves him and Hayley Emma Otway plays her with the right mix of worldliness and honesty.

Lecherous Uncle Willie, chasing the chambermaids would have been on Viagra had it been invented and Peter Le Breuilly could have done with an extra boost to get the full out of this gift of a comic role but, along with the bride's parents (Dympha Le Rasle and Tony Lewis) the older generation are eclipsed by the youngsters in this spirited revival.

Until 31st January 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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