Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2
Opened 10 October, 2005

Everyone remembers the 1956 movie with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly; in fact, though, Cole Porter's musical High Society only became a stage show in 1987, and Ian Talbot's production (first seen in Regent's Park two summers ago) uses Arthur Kopit's revised book of 1997. This takes the opportunity to expand the role of the servants of the Lord family's Long Island patrician household: not only stagehands and ensemble, they also frequently comment in song on the smart set's doings on the eve of Tracy Lord's second wedding, to dull George Kittredge. Kopit's version also incorporates a handful of other Porter numbers such as "Just One Of Those Things" and (gratuitously) "I Love Paris", but in addition commits the heresy of largely rewriting one of the show's most memorable songs, "Well Did You Evah?"

Last year saw a lacklustre revival of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, on which the musical is based, starring Jennifer Ehle as Tracy and Kevin Spacey as her disarming ex-husband Dexter. Here, though, the most famous face in the cast is playing a character who is not even given a first name. As "Mother Lord", Jerry Hall looks effortlessly statuesque in every posture she adopts, but lacks a sense of dramatic pace when she speaks and has a reedy singing voice. Katherine Kingsley is efficient as Tracy herself, but I could cheerfully throttle Claire Redcliffe, who is far too old to be in pigtails and bobby-socks, emitting little-girl squeals as her sister Dinah. As undercover reporter Mike Connor, Paul Robinson sounds quite like Sinatra on "You're Sensational", but doesn't have the charisma to match. Graham Bickley's Dexter is charming enough, but far and away the strongest of the principals is Ria Jones as Mike's photographer and secret admirer Liz.

Paul Farnsorth's set design, with its trellises and topiaries, is fundamentally the same one used in Regent's Park, and mimics its setting to best effect. Indeed, the lighting plot does likewise: Tracy's wedding supposedly takes place at noon, but as the second act climaxes, the lights fade to a twinkling starscape reminiscent of the production's original open-air location. This, though, also suggests that the production knows its principal challenge: a sylvan summery setting makes an audience willing to overlook a show's shortcomings, whereas the West End is more demanding.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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