High Society (Victoria Palace Theatre)
Times Literary Supplement, March 1987
Here is a big-band show, American style. Everything is larger and louder than life. Even the basic love-story is an eternal pentagon. Poor little heiress Tracy Lord finds her affections fragmented among four men: father, ex-husband, bridegroom-to-be and low-life interloper. No doubt her heart belongs to Daddy, like almost everything else in Pennsylvania, but the rest of her oscillates very fetchingly in hostess gowns, swimsuits and nightwear for a few carefree hours spent in kissing the boys goodbye again. It all adds up to an enjoyable evening's entertainment for all but the most critically-minded. They can't help wondering how this transparently thin material could ever have made up so stylishly for stage and screen. Bespoke tailoring skills is the answer. Philip Barry's 1939 theatre hit The Philadelphia Story was just made for Hepburn; so was the classic Cukor cinema version of 1940, which co-opte Cary Grant and James Stewart. The 1956 musical movie adaptation placed a new Cole Porter score at the service of Crosby, Sinatra and Grace Kelly. The absence of such stars is the only novel feature of the evening: this latest rehash is just the show of the musical of the film of the play.
I trust all the previous rights have been throughly researched; otherwise this production could prove even more expensive than it looks. It is billed as "Book by Richard Eyre", which is at least an original conception of authorship. His direction is certainly creditable, altough its declared aim of truthfulness to the Barry story seems to me to miss the mark by miles. Perhaps the idea never had much point anyhow. The music was always extraneous, and the extra Porter imported from earlier shows makes it more so. The opening chorus, "How do You Spell 'Ambassador'", for example, is a graft that has quite failed to take. The first spoken scene, which bears the whole weight of exposition, also lacks coherence. It is only when the Lord gamily, for rather obscure reasons, begins to behave uncharacteristically, that any real character emerges. Amanda Rosen as kid sister Dinah provides a much needed show-starter with her saucily precocious "give Him the OO-la-la". All the rest is a brilliant cabaret floor-show interspersed with quieter acted episodes. Some of these seem off-stage in comparison, and one the best actually is; the swimming-pool sound‑effects are cleverly evocative. But the odds against any real dramatic feeling are far too high. Among the remorseless jollity of jazz and razzmatazz, wisecrack and break-dance, the occasional tear shed for unrequited love savours of tragic relief.
Why worry, though, if the main components fail to mix? They pack enough fizz separately to energize the entire evening. Natasha Richardson as the heiress heroine is engagingly Hepburnian; indeed, all the principals are outstandingly good in their wrong way. The musical genre surely demands, by definition, singers and dancers who can act rather than actors who can sing and dance. The brightest highlights therefore come from the genuine hybrids Angela Richards as the love-lorn Liz wrings the essence of lonely longing from Porter's cunningly thin-vowelled rhyming sequence "In the [dim, rin, hill chill] Still of the Night". Trevor Eve as the ex-husband sings most winningly; the born actor's expressive delivery lights up his melodic lines, especially in "True Love" and "Little One". Stephen Rea as the new suitor is persuasive in his vocal projection of "You're Sensational". But he should not act too drunk in Act Two; his rôle requires him be self-restrained, not just incapable, with the defenceless Tracy.
The sets and scene-changes are dazzling. The band audibly knows its business from the first off-beat chord. The wittily allusive arrangements would be even more effective with the volume toned down and Eve a tone up. The chorus excel in individual talent as well as team spirit; Susan Hollands's dancing and singing waitress, for example, will be catching many a customer's eye before this agreeable show is over.