It's Tough At The Top

 
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High Society
by Cole Porter & Arthur Kopit
 
directed by Maria Friedman
The Old Vic
London
 

It’s tough at the top: the press are snooping through your knicker drawer, your father’s cavorting with a dancer half his age, your ex-husband’s trying to give you a yacht you don’t want and you simply can’t stomach all that champagne these days. Such are the problems of Tracy Lord as she navigates her way through her own wedding party attended by the great, the good, and the gorgeous of America’s High Society.

 

Maria Friedman’s production takes place in 1958 on Long Island, Gatsby territory – and the play certainly doesn't shy away from it. We get the dancing and the champagne, the money and the sumptuous clothing. The second act begins with a scene as rich and energetic (though, admittedly, far more camp) as any of Fitzgerald’s great party scenes: a piano battle complete with tap dancer atop the pianos and a dance choreographed by Nathan M Wright, who worked with Baz Lurhman on his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. And yet the similarities to Gatsby are only skin deep. What we miss, and what the play desperately needs, is some of the cold and witty cynicism that Fitzgerald depicted in the old money set of three decades previous. The characters of High Society seem genuinely thrilled at the prospect of splashing their money, they treat the celebrations like lottery winners, barely able to believe their luck at hosting such a swellegant party. Who wants to be a millionaire? These guys do. And without the sardonic hauteur of Fitzgerald’s mega rich, the play feels like an unabashed celebration of money itself, and those who where born into it.

 

But, then again, there’s no denying these guys have style. Tom Pye has created an intoxicating world with his set and costume design that colludes with Cole Porter’s music to create the atmosphere of the Golden Age glamour. Even down to the set changes, which were performed with grace and finesse by the chorus, the world created on stage was one of polished elegance. Characters seemed to change costume almost every scene, one stunning dress being discarded for another, the actors wearing their finery with the comfortable indifference of the wealthy. Rupert Young, especially, managed to bring out the easy charm and quick wit of the old money socialite in his C K Dexter Haven. Ever relaxed, yet with hints of a troubled past at the fringes of his performance, Young’s Dexter is the epitome of the East Coast elite, the production’s only success at finding a Gatsbyesque cynicism. His stage presence is matched only by Ellie Bamber, who’s playful Dinah Lord is young and indignant without ever slipping into caricature – no easy task, but one she manages with impressive physical and vocal work, producing the realistic demeanour of a child many years her junior. Kate Fleetwood’s performance in the leading role has the energy and pout of a woman used to getting what she wants, but is perhaps guilty of melodrama as the stakes are raised and the alcohol flows.

 

You have to feel for the actors playing a character who doesn’t belong to the old money world of the play’s socialite heroes. The play can only manage the most crude caricatures of its working class characters: the hack writer, making pennies in tabloid journalism, his female assistant – hopelessly in love with him, yet hopelessly devoid of any character or personality. Worst of all is George Kittredge, new-money-husband-to-be of the play’s heroine, daring to attempt to marry above his social status. In a painful rendition of ‘I Worship You’, which leaves George on his knees while Tracy towers above him on a deck chair, you start to wonder why The Old Vic would choose such a regressive play in the first place. However, final night of High Society will also bring the curtain down on Kevin Spacey’s eleven year reign there. Whilst Spacey’s tenure has brought financial stability and some flashes of brilliance (often from his own performances) to the theatre, a new approach from Matthew Warchus might encourage different voices to be heard and High Society to be left where it belongs, with Sinatra et al., on a black and white DVD from the fifties. 

 

James Thomson

 

photos | ©Johan Persson