High Society (Old Vic)

Maria Friedman’s production of Cole Porter’s classic feel-good musical is high in energy but short on style

Kate Fleetwood as Tracy
Kate Fleetwood as Tracy
© Johan Persson

I hate to be a party-pooper – oh, all right, I don't really – but there's so much wrong with Maria Friedman's energetic, high-spirited production of this pick 'n mix Cole Porter hybrid musical that it would be a dereliction of duty to throw in the towel and kick up my heels with everyone else.

Arthur Kopit's 1998 Broadway version, first seen here ten years ago in a jolly Regent's Park production by Ian Talbot, is updated to the late 1950s, begging too many unfortunate comparisons with the Bing Crosby/ Grace Kelly/ Frank Sinatra 1956 movie and steam-rollering the Long Island socialite milieu of Philip Barry's 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, with comedy coarseness.

Outgoing artistic director Kevin Spacey salvaged his first season at the Vic with a so-so revival of Barry's classic, delivering a sparkling performance as Tracy Lord's old flame, Dexter Haven, here played with a modicum of charm but minimal dash by Rupert Young.

The balance of the casting is all wrong: Kate Fleetwood's relentlessly glamorous Tracy is a little too mature for someone a) on the brink of a disastrous marriage to boring George Kittredge (Richard Grieve) – "To meet him once is to know him well" – and b) still pestered by a precocious little sister (Ellie Bamber). The gate-crashing journalists, Mike Connor (Jamie Parker) and Liz Imbrie (Annabel Scholey) are okay but over strenuous, short on humour and charisma. Sinatra and Celeste Holm they ain't.

Actually, not even Stephen Rea and Angela Richards they ain't, who played the roles in the less frenetic Richard Eyre 1987 version. The highlight then was Richards singing, softly and movingly, the interpolated "In the still of the night." The interpolations here characteristically include a rumbustious ensemble version of "Let's Misbehave" which certainly gets the joint jumping as a pair of magically materialising pianists – Joe Stilgoe (son of Richard) and bandleader Theo Jamieson – pulverize the ivories.

And that's what this show is all about, almost inevitably as it's set in the in-the-round configuration that has become an over-used mixed blessing these past few seasons: bashing out the numbers and "ridin' high," and not just when Tracy stomps on sporting jodhpurs and a brace of pheasant. Style and finesse don't figure on the agenda, from the minute the show shuffles haphazardly into gear with the admittedly brilliant young Stilgoe taking requests from the audience.

If you're going just to hear the songs, you may not feel short-changed, even after being battered into submission (oh, and the sound system is very poor, too). "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," "True Love" (virtually ruined by the twee gimmick of a model boat sliding round the auditorium) and "Samantha" are bolstered with a grab-bag selection including "I Love Paris" (from Can-Can) and Uncle Willie's "Say It With Gin" (an unpublished revue item), while the great movie duet "Well, Did You Evah?" is re-jigged as a company second act opener.

Given that we're all well and truly cornered at a "swellegant" not so "elegant" party by now, it's probably best just to roll over and give in, concluding with Irving Berlin that your defences are down and they can just carry on regardless. But that's your decision, not mine.