As a movie, High Society was a thief that stole its class. It’s not the familiar MGM polish that’s kept the memory alive, it’s the glittering cast (Crosby, Kelly, Sinatra) plus a small handful of great Cole Porter numbers. So when Arthur Kopit, the playwright of Indians and book writer of Nine, was hired to craft a full-on stage musical from such thin material – itself a flat retread of The Philadephia Story – he had a job on his hands.
Kopit’s answer was to throw songs at it. Heaven knows, the Porter back catalogue is rich in forgotten gems, and a fair few of these turn up in the stage show. Happily it kind of works, as the limp plot now merely serves to link up the numbers.
Director John Plews has had the bold idea of transposing the action to a privileged England. That kind of works too: the True Love is now moored on the Solent, the wannabe millionaires are US interlopers and the British class system rules the roost. It all fits together nicely, although problems lurk beneath.
The romantic shenanigans of society princess Tracy with her ex, Dexter, her soon-to-be second husband George and her sudden squeeze Mike have a sophisticated insouciance when played out in cool America, but this anglicised version takes us to Sandy Wilson country. When lecherous Uncle Willie addresses "I’m Getting Myself Ready for You" to young Liz (an excellent Hayley Emma Otway), The Boy Friend’s Lord Brockhurst is practically in the room.
The orchestrations detract further from the show’s idiom. The instrumental sound is too modern and it drowns the singers. Electric guitars may be swelegant but they’re certainly not elegant, and MD Tom Kelly’s frenetic tempi don’t help.
This fringe production is astonishingly stylish in other ways, though. An outstanding ensemble (Nicola Martin, Brendan Matthew, Adam Pritchard and Yasmin Wakefield) sing, dance, change props and steal scenes with Broadway aplomb. Lee Proud’s choreography is a tight delight and Fi Russell’s scrim set allows for several neat ‘gauze’ moments.
Kirby Hughes is an oddly kooky Tracy, but she overacts with panache and makes an interesting counterpart to Peter Kenworthy’s low-key Dexter. Elsewhere in the cast some less convincing performers have wrongly decided that more is more, but these do not include Jessica Bastick-Vines who gets away with murder as Tracy’s brattish sister. The star turn, though, comes from Brendan Cull in the Sinatra role. He is constantly, sardonically alive, even in his silences.
This is a production that reaches heroically beyond its grasp and, for the most part, gets there. At times it’s hard to remember we’re sitting in a room above a pub.
- Mark Valencia