There is much to be said for theatre ‘in-the-round’, but whether it could ever work for a Cole Porter musical in a top West End venue remains questionable. No-one, however, could doubt the ambition of Maria Friedman’s production of High Society at The Old Vic as it remodels the interior of the building. The normal stalls and stage are removed while temporary constructions create sloping seating areas both in the auditorium and under the proscenium arch. With the circular stage lying between these two sections, the band occupying dress circle boxes on either side, and bars built into the structure serving drinks beforehand, the entire theatre carries an air of decadence entirely befitting the subject matter.
What all this achieves, however, is far from clear. I can picture a small production in a fringe venue successfully employing a similar approach by generating such intimacy, but something on this scale needs to whisk us into another world. Sitting in the stalls it feels almost as if one is watching a standard proscenium production, only instead of there being scenery behind the performers there are more rows of people, which is hardly conducive to immersing the viewer in the decadence of the scenario.
Before the musical proper starts the pianist Joe Stilgoe plays in the centre, improvising to songs suggested by spectators. It is all good fun, and the skills he demonstrates quite remarkable, but the audience participation he introduces feels out of step with the subsequent drama that includes no such interactions. It would be a mistake for a production of this size to try to introduce them, but as such it seems odd for it to have embraced an approach the normal advantages of which cannot be exploited here.
The production is undoubtedly slick from start to finish, with the various props and pianos required for each scene being wheeled on or rising from the floor. There are also many nice touches. During a breakfast scene one can actually smell the bacon and eggs being cooked, while the objects in the room where the Lords keep the things they don’t want include a Fabergé egg and sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Alberto Giacometti.
With the introduction of so many details, however, the stage becomes quite restricted, which affects how ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ is choreographed. The direction is reasonably successful, but it feels unfortunate that a small and fussy approach has to be introduced when a larger number on a standard proscenium stage could be livelier and more engaging still. In addition, the intimacy striven for is undermined by the amplification of the singers because, regardless of the positioning of the stage, the Old Vic remains a large space for non-operatic voices to fill.
The level of singing varies a little across the cast, but at its best is very good, while the standard actually required also differs from part to part. The acting is strong with particular accolades going to Jeff Rawle as a magnificently eccentric Uncle Willie and Ellie Bamber as a brilliantly precocious Dinah Lord. Rupert Young and Jamie Parker are strong as C K Dexter Haven and Mike Connor respectively, while Annabel Scholey has a highly pleasing voice and engaging persona as Liz Imbrie.
Richard Grieve is also excellent as George Kittredge. His performance of ‘I Worship You’ is enjoyable, and, while he conveys of all the requisite irritable traits, he still seems fairly dashing and upstanding in his own right. In this respect, High Society is very much like Der fliegende Holländer in that, no matter how destined they are to lose, Kittredge and Erik still have to feel like a match for the protagonist.
After a subdued Act I, things take a marked turn for the better after the interval. The performance of ‘Let’s Misbehave’ proves a masterpiece that sees two pianos rise from the floor, and pianists frequently circling the stage as they change places at the keyboards. The lengthy piece begins jovially enough before building up an intoxicating head of steam and presenting an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza that the audience just doesn’t want to end.
High Society was a film first, and Cole Porter songs from other shows have been added to it to make it fit for the stage. The second act may benefit more from these catchy additions, but these alone do not account for its success. The stage feels far less cluttered, and the spoken comedy scenes are rendered well in the area provided. Finally, there is the performance of Kate Fleetwood as Tracy Lord whose rendition of ‘It’s All Right With Me’ is highly moving, and who in both halves demonstrates levels of singing, acting and dancing that draw us completely towards her. The consequence is that one can emerge from Act II feeling reasonably fulfilled, but it does seem as if this show spends the first half battling against a flawed concept before finally making it work after the interval.