High Society at the Old Vic
The tale of a socialite’s wedding plans thrown awry by her ex-husband and a handsome reporter was previously produced in Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story, and later developed into the 1956 musical film with its current title. With icons like Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby associated with these productions, there is a level of expectation that arrives with those watching.
Staged in the round, the audience are drawn in from the start with Joe Stilgoe in the Sinatra role, taking requests and impressively melding them together; it turns out that Moonlight Sonata goes surprisingly well with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The immersive experience is upheld throughout, with the smells of breakfast cooking and cigarettes smoked onstage, and the pianists and double bassist getting involved in the “swellegant, elegant” party. Those in the front row get a face-full of the beautiful, Dior-esque party dresses in the second act opener, and Cole Porter’s lyrics “let’s misbehave” are inviting. Lively choreography pulls those watching into a party that Gatsby would be proud of, and the palatial Long Island estate is conveyed remarkably well in a very limited space – you won’t believe where they produce pianos from.
In the lead role, Fleetwood’s Tracy Lord becomes more likeable as the show progresses, as the audience sees a spoiled young woman lose the inhibitions imposed by her perception of the importance of her family’s reputation. Given more stage time, Ellie Bamber would steal the show playing Tracy’s sister Dinah, excellently flailing and French-faking, by far the most self-aware character of them all. Across the cast, the women are strong and the men are funny (whether through wit or lack thereof), and Rupert Young and Jamie Parker manage to have a great rapport while competing for Tracy.
Translating 1950s American high society to a crowd of Londoners in 2015 is not immediately convincing, and the first half takes a bit of time to warm up. However, once the characters loosen up, and the sense of forced manners lifts, the show gains real swing. The cast are at their very best when executing their comic turns, to much laughter. Silly, schmaltzy, glamorous and charmingly cheerful, High Society has a sincere heart wrapped up in comedy.
High Society is on at the Old Vic Theatre until 22nd August 2015, for further information or to book visit here.