Thursday, 23 July 2015

Theatre Review: High Society

One of the things I love about the theatre is you never know how you’re going to react to a production.

Regardless of how well you know the show, the cast, the creative team, the theatre or anything else, what happens when the curtain rises always has the potential to completely defy your expectations - good or bad.

Case in point: the Old Vic’s High Society. On paper, this is a production that I should love - Cole Porter, a big old fashioned musical, big band-ish music, set in the 1950s, lots of stuff that ticks my boxes. But, to coin a phrase, shows aren't staged on paper and on the stage, this production didn't quite reach all of my boxes. (That sounds weird. You know what I mean.)

Image source.

It did reach some though and, for me, the undisputed star of this production is Nathan Wright’s dazzling choreography, particularly in the set piece production numbers. The absolute highlight of the show by some margin is the sequence built around ‘Let’s Misbehave’ in which the combination of some of the most energetic choreography I've seen in London, ever, with a dazzling piano duel between the show’s top drawer musical director Theo Jamieson and jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe (huge kudos to whoever made space for him in the production - he’s mindblowingly good in this sequence) and a virtuoso piano-top tap routine from the nauseatingly-talented-yet-somehow-fresh-out-of-drama-school Omari Douglas is amongst the most thrilling ten minutes of a musical I've seen. Worth the price of a ticket alone? Not quite, not at Old Vic prices, but damn close.

The cast, too, is uniformly good. The stand out, again by some margin, is Kate Fleetwood who is a sparkling Tracy Lord, perfectly capturing the many contradictions and layers of what is a very complex character (especially in a show where most of the other characters are more or less one dimensional). She has a gorgeous voice and a natural flair for comedy which elevate some of the key sequences hugely. And she’s a very convincing drunk. Rupert Young - voice as smooth as a very smooth thing - is similarly good as Tracy’s love match Dexter, positively dripping coolness and heart in equal measure. Barbara Flynn draws every ounce of comedy from her pretty unsubstantial role as Tracy’s long suffering mother and Jamie Parker is typically charismatic (though a resoundingly unconvincing drunk) as frustrated writer Mike Connor, hoovering up most of the best one liners and delivering them with an enjoyable swagger. And the ensemble cast of miscellaneous servants/posh people are fantastic, carrying off much of the heavy lifting where the choreography is concerned without putting a foot wrong, literally or figuratively.

For all that, though, I struggled to get particularly excited about the show as a whole. At the most fundamental level I don’t like the plot, or many of the characters, which is obviously a problem that no production would be able to overcome. This production in particular deals with the plot in a slightly uneven way. Directed by musical superstar Maria Friedman - which explains why the musical sequences of the show are so much its strongest suit - the entire first act feels like the set-up for a punchline that the second act doesn't quite deliver on. To put it another way, the first act starts to set up a farce but doesn't actually contain any farce, the second act then drops said promised farce (I really like the word farce) and carries on down a different, more serious, path.

The consequence of this is that I never felt that the plot really got going, something that wasn't helped by the fact there are just too many songs in this show. Right, now I'm aware how batshit mental that sounds as a complaint about a musical. But there were so many musical numbers in this production - which, if my understanding is correct, is a choice made by Arthur Kopit who adapted the film of High Society for the stage and not the way Cole Porter originally wrote it - that even though they were all very well done I just got bored of them. It’s almost like the decision had been taken (whether by Kopit, Porter or someone else doesn't really matter) to just cram in as many Cole Porter songs as possible - I'm amazed that Anything Goes didn't crop up, frankly - and just squish the narrative in around them. I found it intensely frustrating as by the end of the two and a half hours I had had enough of the best part of the show - the music.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think High Society is a bad show because it demonstrably isn't. I just didn't think it was a great one either, even if it does have some great moments. Worth a look, but not a must see.

Oh, and if you do go get in your seats early as Joe Stilgoe’s pre-show warm up is fab.

High Society is at the Old Vic until 22nd August.

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