High Society - The Old Vic 2015
It's third time lucky for a stage version of High Society, the 1956 MGM film, in the West End. It has previously come to the stage courtesy of director Richard Eyre, just before he took over the running of the National Theatre, in 1987 that Eyre himself adapted in a production at the Victoria Palace that starred the late, great Natasha Richardson as Tracy Lord, the spoilt heiress at its centre who juggles the attentions of three suitors simultaneously.
High Society was subsequently adapted for the Broadway stage by playwright Arthur Kopit in 1998, and that adaptation was used for a production at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park in 2003 that subsequently transferred to the Shaftesbury in 2005, with Jerry Hall playing Mother Lord.
I saw each one of those incarnations, including Broadway, and the show never really worked before onstage. But now performer-turned-director Maria Friedman, directing her second musical after the triumph of Merrily We Roll Along that transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End's Pinter Theatre two summers ago, has herself updated Kopit's version and turned it into a considerable triumph at the Old Vic.
It's partly that she's shrunk the show for a tightly-focused in-the-round production (itself a very unusual configuration for a musical to be staged in, requiring the dance to explode in all directions simultaneously instead of being lined up symmetrically to be seen straight on). With the audience wrapped entirely around a relatively compact stage in the middle of the room, you are brought up close and personal with the action and directly drawn into it.
But this intimate production is also cast in strength throughout, with a sizzling chorus and really fine leading actors. Chief among them is Kate Fleetwood who brings grace, style, wit and grit to Tracy Lord, with Jamie Parker as the suddenly smitten gatecrashing journalist Mike Connor who has come to cover her wedding to Richard Grieve's George Kittredge for a tabloid rag. Meanwhile, former beau CK Dexter Haven - handsomely taken by Rupert Young - completes the triumvirate of her admirers.
There's also great support from Ellie Bamber as Tracy's younger sister Dinah, Barbara Flynn as her mother, Christopher Ravenscroft as her philandering father, and Jeff Rawle as Uncle Willie. And the band, under musical director Theo Jamieson and split between two platforms on either side of the stage, is another character all of its own, and Jamieson himself comes into his own as he takes to the stage in the second act to perform a piano duel with Joe Stilgoe's house pianist.
To quote Cole Porter himself, "What a swellegant, elegant party this is!"
"So artificial do proceedings seem in the first hour that I wished the theatre had jettisoned its current in-the-round layout, which demands a certain realism, and removed the action safely behind the proscenium arch."
Serena Davis for The Daily Telegraph
"Maria Friedman directs with style, and Kate Fleetwood is among the lively cast, but Cole Porter’s musical mish-mash has a patronising attitude."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If you're going to stage such utter escapism, you better do it with panache - and this in-the-round production does."
Holly Williams for The Independent