High Society @ Shaftesbury Theatre, London

cast list
Jerry Hall
Graham Bickley
Katherine Kingsley
Paul Robinson
Ria Jones
James Jordan
Royston Kean
Claire Redcliffe
Bryan Torfeh

directed by
Ian Talbot

There’s a show currently playing in the West End that demonstrates unequivocally that it’s still possible to transfer old-school Broadway style to the London stage. That production is Michael Grandage’s supremely enjoyable take on Guys And Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre. Unfortunately though Ian Talbot’s Open Air Theatre production of Cole Porter’s musical tries to work the same magic, it doesn’t come close.

Brought to the screen in 1956 with a top-notch cast featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, High Society tells the story of rich girl Tracy Lord and her three very different suitors: working class fianc George Kittredge, ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven and ‘undercover’ journo Mike Collins. It is of course of a musical reworking of Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story, the film of which is rightly regarded as one of the classics of American cinema.

The publicity for this production has made much of its token big name cast member. Yes, Jerry Hall plays Tracy’s mother, but while she looks every inch the icy society matriarch the impression is ruined every time she opens her mouth or, worse yet, sings. Fortunately her vocal contributions are kept to a minimum.

Katherine Kingsley is saddled with the unenviable task of playing the haughty Tracy Lord, a role indelibly tied to, not one but two, icons of the American screen. And a role only very recently played to superb effect by Jennifer Ehle in the Old Vic’s production of The Philadelphia Story. Kingsley is a competent performer and has a certain onstage charm but there’s barely any evidence of Tracy’s severe ice-queen persona, her disdain for human frailty, and therefore there’s no moment of revelation when she eventually thaws.

Graham Bickley and Paul Robinson make not unappealing prospects for Tracy as Dexter Haven and Mike Collins respectively, though the latter seems to be grappling with the desire to show off his dance background. Royston Kean gives an amusing turn as the lecherous Uncle Willie but Claire Redcliffe is nasal and grating as Dinah Lord, Tracy’s bratty younger sister.

As Mike’s Spy magazine partner Liz Imrie, Ria Jones gives the most human and sympathetic performance of the evening, she’s also got a great belting voice and her and Mike’s drawling duet on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is the only point where the production achieves the kind of dizzy pleasure one expects from musical theatre.

Elsewhere, presumably because of the impossibility of recreating Crosby and Sinatra’s partnership, Well Did You Evah? is buried in the medley and none of the other numbers supply much excitement. Talbot’s production uses a new book by American playwright Arthur Kopit. His main tweak is to use the Lords’ servants as a kind of chorus. This works reasonably well and it’s the small reactions of some of these servants that provide the humour curiously lacking from so many of the scenes.

This arrives at the Shaftesbury after a successful run at the Open Air Theatre but what passed muster on a warm summer night in Regent’s Park doesn’t really cut it here. If all you want is the wit of Cole Porter’s lyrics and the swish of 1950’s skirts then you’ll leave happy but this is a by-numbers, flat-pack production. Guys And Dolls, The Producers and even Mary Poppins have raised the bar high for West End musicals and this just isn’t in their class.

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