High Society

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Cole Porter's musical gets a riotously fun production from Maria Friedman

You’re probably on a hiding to nothing trying to perform Marxist analysis on Kevin Spacey’s final shows as Old Vic artistic director. Still, after assiduously courting corporate sponsorship during his reign, it was fascinating to watch him lambast the one percent with his acting swansong ‘Clarence Darrow’, and it’s equally notable that ‘High Society’ – his final piece of programming – unabashedly celebrates them.

Make no mistake, the politics of Cole Porter and Arthur Kopit’s musical are pretty hmmm: it’s essentially about how the upper classes and lower orders are better off sticking with their own, and includes some sexual stuff – an ironic love duet between a grown man and an underage girl, a lecherous old bum who drunkenly chases women – that’s a bit ’70s children’s TV presenter, if you catch my drift.

It is a top larf though. It’s essentially a musical about some people having a big party, and some of the songs in it are amongst the greatest ever written. And while Maria Friedman’s largely effervescent production makes no real effort to rationalise the more objectionable stuff, she fires it all out at such a frothy, cock-eyed tilt – and makes the aristos all seem so terribly silly – that it’s hard to get too working class hero about it. 

Moreover she has reeled in some fantastic acting talent, foremost Kate Fleetwood as eccentric toff Tracy Lords, and Jamie Parker as Mike, the bit of rough journalist she has a drunken snog with on the way to realising that dull working class fiancé George (Richard Grieve) is not for her and that she should get back with posh smoothie ex Dexter (Rupert Young). Fleetwood’s remarkable, hypercheekboned face is an absolute riot as she gurns and slurs and grins through various dimensions of drunkenness. And Parker – brilliant in the Menier’s ‘Assassins’ – is effortlessly charismatic, with a real young Sean Penn thing going on.

Perhaps the biggest innovation of Friedman’s in-the-round production is the addition of Joe Stilgoe, a cabaret jazz piano player. He gets the night off to a fun start by taking audience requests and mashing them up into a virtuosic medley, then later drops in a host of parlour tricks (playing blindfolded etc) to form the showy fulcrum of the irresistible ‘Let’s Misbehave’ sequence, a party scene of such dementedly overblown proportions – credit to choreographer Nathan M Wright on this one – that you would basically have to hate the concept of fun not to enjoy it.

When the revolution comes, Tracy Lords would definitely be the first against the wall. But on this showing, you’d want to party with her first.

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