Nicholas Le Provost
For his third dramatic production as artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey has taken a more populist route. Cloaca and National Anthems both received their fair share of critical savaging, but with its sharp, snappy dialogue and sometimes farcical humour the Philadelphia Story was bound to endear itself more to audiences then either of his earlier efforts.
The main hurdle was always going to be: how do you take something that was filmed so successfully and bring it back to the theatre without peoples memories of Hepburn, Grant and Stewart overshadowing the proceedings?
Originally produced on Broadway in 1939, the play, by Philip Barry, is the story of the education of Tracy Lord, a member of an upper class Philadelphia family who is about to marry for the second time. Tracy is beautiful, clever and witty but has a shocking lack of tolerance for any human weakness. Her first husband, her father and even her future husband, all regard her as an untouchable goddess: cold, virginal and ultimately severe. Her father, at one point, describes her as not having ‘an understanding heart.’ Yet while these three men make Tracy aware of her shortcomings, it is Mike, a journalist, who allows her to open up.
The Philadelphia Story is an acerbic, quick-witted and sometimes farcical ride, but in the end it lives or dies by the casting of Tracy herself. Thankfully they have chosen well. Jennifer Ehle manages to both make Tracy likeable and to successfully escape from Hepburns hold on the character. She capably conveys Tracys cool sexy poise in the plays opening scenes, matching wits with everyone around her, before slowly breaking the character down and showing that she has human frailties just like everyone else.
The rest of the cast are also first class: Julia McKenzie shows her flare for comedy as the matriarch of her complicated and confusing brood; Tallulah Riley, in her stage debut is wonderful as the gawky, scheming sister, Damien Mathews plays the bumbling brother who, whilst content in his own life, is instrumental in stirring up his sisters and Nicholas Le Provost is wonderfully funny as bottom-pinching Uncle Willy.
However, it is the pairing of Lauren Ward as Liz Imrie and DW Moffett as Mike Connor, the two journalists who force the Lord family to shake lose some of the family skeletons, who provide the best surprises of the night. Neither of these characters are keen to get stuck covering the society wedding of a class and people they consider social pariahs. The issue of class is clearly supposed to be the driving force behind Barry’s play, but from early on its obvious that deep down he has a real affection for these people.
The production is not without its problems, one of them being Kevin Spacey himself. As CK Dexter Haven, Tracy’s first husband, he comes bounding onto the stage full of life and with a fury that is strangely at odds with the plays studied coolness. Furthermore there is a hardness about his performance, which makes the eventual outcome of the play seem rather unlikely.
This is a very enjoyable production, if you take it for what it is: a sparkling, fast paced and deliciously wordy comedy. However, if its ground breaking theatre youre after then this probably not for you.