Have you heard, it's in the stars…
High Society: Kevin Spacey’s tenure at the Old Vic is almost up, after an 12-year jaunt that’s taken the theatre to as many corners of the thespian globe as it’s possible to go. The success of last season’s Clarence Darrow saw queues snaking round the side of the building (I know because my mum was one of them, hunched in the doorway in a sleeping bag at 4am). And what better way to bow out than on the sparkling pink cocktail that is High Society – at once sexy, jolly and naff.
Based on Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story and with lyrics by the inimitable Cole Porter, the story centres around a bells-and-tiaras Long Island wedding. Tracy’s been married before (oops) but has found her diamond in the rough through George, a nouveau riche blunderbuss who tells no jokes. Romance! Awkwardly, ex-husband Dexter (#lad) decides to swing by for the party, all hipster and funny and charming.
Unfortunately, Tracy’s dad’s gone AWOL of late and local hacks are slathering to uncover his infidelity while scooping the marriage of the year. Cue Mike and Liz, reporters from the fictional Spy magazine and deeply suspicious of the whinnying aristos they’ve got to tail. Tracy doesn’t want her big day ruined by a front-page pic of her dad in nothing but a turquoise feather and an oven glove, so tricks the reporters into thinking her uncle’s her father and vice versa. The plot thickens as Mike starts to fall for Tracy – to Liz’s chagrin – and there’s a woefully timed evening of champagne-fuelled skinny-dipping. Suddenly it’s a musical version of shag/marry/push off a cliff, with everyone running around like a blue-arsed fly on heat.
What makes High Society – and this production in particular – so strong is its totally unapologetic lavishness. A feast for the eyes and ears, classics like You’re Sensational, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and I Love You, Samantha are belted with an energy and synchronisation unrivalled by much I’ve seen before. Directed by Maria Friedman (of Joseph fame, 1999, a must-see for the drunk and/or hopeless) and produced by John Richardson, it’s well-choreographed and never skimps on the glitz: one especially cool effect sees Tracy (a wonderfully varied Kate Fleetwood) sail a model boat over the family’s swimming pool. The eerie circle of light flickers blue on the boards and the little craft begins to shimmy its way across, a rare moment of quiet.
For roguish humour, of-its-time credibility and an enormous cast managed to perfection, it’s a triumph for the Old Vic: musicals are a risky business for mainstream theatre, after all. It feels apt to have sat through High Society – essentially a great honking dance-off between rich and poor – given the recent political bukkake, and among the sly innuendo and seemingly surface-level plot there are important messages to take. Have regard for human frailty, as Tracy says, dance until dawn, and remember that literally everything sounds better sung.
Thu 30 April – Sat 22 August 2015