High Society - Shaftesbury Theatre 2005
“I hope you’re going to write something good about this”, said the lady sitting next to me at the end of the performance. “Yes, I am”, I said. In fact it would be churlish, if not rather mean-spirited to do otherwise, because this musical play has all the hallmarks of a slick, polished and professional production. Nevertheless, it did leave me with some nagging doubts - but more of those anon.
My inquisitive neighbour in the royal circle needn’t have worried, because this version of ‘High Society’ is already something of a success story (even without my assistance). It’s had a sell-out run at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, as well as a successful tour before coming into the West End. It’s a landmark for the team at the Open Air Theatre, being their first transfer to the West End. Directed by their artistic Director, Ian Talbot, it’s based on the 1956 film of the same title starring Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, which in turn was based on the 1939 play ‘The Philadelphia Story’ by Phillip Barry. However, the book was revised by Arthur Kopit in 1997, but it’s a relatively faithful clone of the original film, even though a few extra songs have been thrown in for good measure.
Essentially, the story is about the American ‘privileged classes enjoying their privileges’. Or to put it another way, it’s about the filthy rich finding something to do with their time.
Recent divorcee, Tracy Lord (played by Katherine Kingsley) is about to get married again – this time to the painfully dull (and very middle-class) George (Bryan Torfeh). However, her ex-husband and recovering alcoholic, CK Dexter Haven (Graham Bickley) shows up just before the nuptials, hoping to reignite some of the old passion between him and Tracy. To complicate the wedding arrangements, Tracy’s father has been ‘playing away from home’, and his antics are about to be made public by the unscrupulous editor of ‘Spy Magazine’. In order to fend off the scandal, two journalists are allowed to join the frolics at the wedding and to observe the rich and their pas-times. Journalist Mike Connor, falls for Tracy, who thus has the unenviable task of choosing between three suitors by the end of the play. It hardly takes a genius to predict what the outcome will be.
The Cole Porter melodies and lyrics still shine as one would expect. Old favourites, and timeless classics such as ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’, ‘I love Paris’, ‘Just one of those things’, ‘Well did you evah?’, and ‘It’s all right with me’, are simply great songs with strong, hummable tunes which can’t fail to impress. And in this version of the show, they’re generally well-sung, and Steven Edis’ arrangements are faithful as well as being well-executed by a highly competent band under the supervision of James Dunsmore.
Jerry Hall gets star billing for ‘High Society’ as Mother Lord (a name which conjures-up visions of ‘Mother Hubbard’ rather than a Long Island socialite). When Hall isn’t scurrying after her wayward husband, she floats across the stage almost in model-mode, smiling sweetly at one and all, and looking serene, as well as stunningly beautiful. But there’s more of the model in her performance than the actor, and her singing has had to be reduced to the Rex Harrison sing-speak variety, which seems rather a waste given the superb quality of the musical material she has to work with. Of course, the role of Mother Lord is hardly a major challenge for any performer. But maybe that’s as well.
Of particular note in the acting department, was Ria Jones’s highly convincing performance as the jaded and cynical photographer, Liz Imbrie. She managed to shine in spite of the fact that much of her role involves evading the pursuit of the drunken lecher, Uncle Willie.
Paul Farnsworth’s set is striking but hardly stunning, even though it received a round of applause when the act-drop flew away. It’s basically a large privet or box hedge bounded by a criss-cross fence, with a kind of dolls house perched high in the background. Still, it serves its purpose adequately enough.
In many ways, musicals are theatrical oddities. The concept of characters suddenly expressing their emotions in song is a little bizarre to say the least. But we accept it because we can suspend our disbelief, and song can enhance the story. In the case of ‘High Society’ though, the situation itself is totally passé, so the songs – brilliant though they certainly are – cannot overcome the flaws of the story in terms of its relevance to a modern audience. The antics of the rich described in ‘High Society’, pale into flaccid insignificance in comparison with the behaviour of today’s ludicrously rich and famous (or should that be infamous), which we’re all treated to in glorious Technicolor and reportage on a daily basis.
For me, ‘High Society’ was right for its time - the 1940s and 1950s - but it’s had its day. Now, the story is just a bland and rather boring vehicle, which I suspect means almost nothing to theatre-goers under 50. For my part, I would much prefer to hear Porter’s tunes sung in concert by a great jazz singer rather than as part of this show. While rewriting the book, Arthur Kopit might have served us better by coming up with a more radical and inspiring upgrade to the storyline, but then he would have had difficulty dovetailing the Porter lyrics. And there’s the rub. In some cases, musical revivals are still meaningful and relevant, but in others you need to know when you’re flogging a dead horse.
That said, if you’re a fan of musicals, or the undoubted brilliance of Cole Porter in particular, you won’t go far wrong with a trip to this version of ‘High Society’, because the songs are great and the production is faithful, professional and enthusiastic. Just don’t expect it to resemble the ‘Osbournes’.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, " I get no kicks out of this staging...heavy-handed production leaves me as cold" MICHAEL COVENEY for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Badly microphoned, desperately choreographed and tinnily accompanied by a band of just six musicians, it looks a bit cheap and eager." CHARLERS SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Never quite achieves a satisfying coherence. Nevertheless, there remains much to enjoy...This High Society may not be quite out of the top drawer, but some of the magic remains." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "fun is lacking. Maybe that upper-crust setting, with its clipped shrubs and distant mansion, has infected Talbot’s cast with chronic stiltedness in a way that Regent’s Park didn’t. Maybe what’s needed is a dose of life-enhancing chlorophyll. But they don’t keep such stuff in the Shaftesbury." LYN GARDNER fro THE GUARDIAN says, "there is something altogether starchy about Ian Talbot's production."
Photo by Peter Brown