Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Opened 18 December, 2001

Fiona Laird's production of High Society at the Sheffield Crucible is a curious and sometimes bewildering mixture. On the one hand, the sharp sparkle of Cole Porter is well represented both musically with the addition of songs beyond his original film score, such as "In The Still Of The Night" and visually, with Stephen Brimson Lewis's design oozing simple elegance and the clutch of supernumeraries in the cast gliding silently behind the main action as servants in the upper-crust Lord household and even turning scene changes into dance numbers. On the other, the early scenes in particular show a spikier than expected side to many of the characters, perhaps excessively so.

Bride-to-be Tracy's twelve-year-old sister Dinah, for instance, may later charm us as much as she bewilders the not-quite-undercover pair of reporters with her tutu-clad rendition of "Friendship", but when she initially voices her opinion of Tracy's choice of match she is not just precociously disapproving but shows an real edge of apparent malice. Richard Durden's Uncle Willie shambles amiably through later scenes, fuelled by a variety of spirituous tinctures, but on his first appearance at breakfast he is not so much the affable old soak as a crotchety alcoholic who genuinely needs his fix to get into shape for the day. The tensions in the Lord family, and Tracy's awkward relationship with ex-husband Dexter Haven, are treated by Laird and her cast not just as wrinkles to be ironed out in the manner of most musicals of the time (even though High Society only had its first stage production in 1987, it is obviously a Golden Age piece), but as the stuff of serious drama. In one way this is admirable, but in another it means that the production sets itself a challenge which it then proceeds to sidestep instead of facing up to, as the numbers unfold in more or less classic mode with no more anguish than the more melancholic songs usually carry.

Aside from this accidental wrong-footing, though, there is much to delight. Jenna Russell's Tracy is extravagant both in pretend-Chekhovian mode before the reporters at first, and later in her drunken exuberance the night before the wedding and its aftermath on the morning of the event. Keith Dunphy is at first uncharismatic in his earnestness as reporter Mike Connor and a little diffident about his singing voice, but redeems himself in his second-act rendition of "You're Sensational". The phrase "assured début" could have been coined for Ian Duncan's performance as Dexter. Alexandra Reynolds' choreography and Neil McArthur's arrangements permeate the show, with frequent single-verse refrains and even a closing medley which made me feel for the first time that such a device in a musical (the opposite of an overture a fermeture?) is not always simply a pre-programmed encore to beef up the curtain call but can be an integral part of the proceedings.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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