Old Vic | ★★★★☆
High Society is the final show of Kevin Spacey’s eleven-year tenure at the Old Vic, and in the circumstances feels like a valedictory party. Adapted from a Cole Porter musical film starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, it is a gleeful mélange of sizzling one-liners and ravishing tunes, set entirely during the day before a wedding. The sense of occasion is heightened by symmetry, as the musical was itself based on The Philadelphia Story, which featured in Spacey’s first season at the theatre.
There are changes, largely for the better. Numerous classic Porter songs have been added to the original nine, and a series of interludes and reprises create a continuous musical patter. While the film has a few subservient, near speechless servants, here they are cast as an all-singing, all-standing chorus, gossiping about the high life even as they rise in the early hours to work. A new conceit whereby the socialites feign ignorance of the hacks in their midst adds an extra comic layer.
Kate Fleetwood makes a captivating Tracey Lord, adding a dash of wild abandon that the ever elegant Grace Kelly lacked. Kelly’s magnetism derived from wealth and beauty; Fleetwood has those too, but also warmth and wit. She is backed by a talented troupe, from Jeff Rawle’s lecherous Uncle Willie to Rupert Young’s knowing Dexter. Most fantastic of all, though, is Ellie Bamber’s turn as Tracey’s bratty younger sister, who exudes attitude without ever becoming wearying.
The in-the-round set-up works in keeping the audience at the centre of the action, turning us into guests at a glamorous residence. Nathan M Wright’s choreography is well-oiled while always evoking spontaneity, and Tom Pye’s flexible set keeps rolling out surprises. Striking visual touches abound, such as when a burning cigarette is left to expire in the hands of a mock-Giacometti. During the delirious party that opens the second act, cast and stage work together to magnificent effect; one particular bit of prop trickery inspires howls of delight.
The play’s uncomplicated celebration of the beau monde can be galling, and it’s difficult to call the plot anything over than flimsy. But as with many classic works – after all, does anyone watch Shakespearian comedies for the narrative? – the devil is in the delivery. This is theatre for theatre’s sake, giddy with the joy of words and music. To resist it, you’d have to be made of bronze.