Royal Exchange Theatre at Upper Campfield Market, Manchester
Opened 11 July, 1996

The programme-note howler of the year in which the late film critic Leslie Halliwell is confused with his namesake Kenneth, Joe Orton's lover and murderer is the only unintentional one of many delights on offer in the first production of the Royal Exchange's IRA-enforced exile from its Manchester city centre home. Its temporary gaff in Campfield Market has a defiantly festive atmosphere, and the mobile theatre erected in the middle of the hall reproduces well the dynamics of the main house on a reduced 400-seat scale.

Josephine Abady's production of The Philadelphia Story provides a cogent rebuttal of accusations that writer Philip Barry was merely an American Noël Coward only less so. Barry's play contains both polished banter and a soul-searching romantic core, true, but the fact that neither aspect is portrayed to a Cowardian extent renders the result more recognisably human. Hard-bitten journalist Mike Connor's late realisation that some people can be both rich and good, or poor and stinkers, means not that he has been corrupted by the high life, but simply that his eyes have been opened to folk as individuals; this is the core of the American ethos which Barry tacitly celebrates.

The story will be familiar to many both from the classic 1940 film version and its 1956 screen-musical adaptation High Society: Philly socialite (and socialite filly) Tracy Lord, on the eve of her second wedding, begins to have second thoughts in the midst of a gay whirl of family confusion precipitated by the arrival of a pair of supposedly undercover journos. Jordan Baker banishes the ghosts of Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelly with an easy yet vulnerable charm, although in the early acts she fires off occasional phrases with a little too much powder for a medium-sized venue in the round.

Of her trio of suitors, Stephen Hogan has little to play with as Tracy's betrothed George (the Victor Prynne of the piece), Richard Hawley's Mike makes the journey well from cynical class prejudice to captivated awakening (you can tell when Hawley is growing sincere he loses the accent), and Tom Mannion exudes a wonderful fluid serenity as ex-husband Dexter. The Lord family is a prime collection of patrician oddballs: a mother whose feet never quite touch the ground (Una Stubbs), a precocious younger sister (Lindsay Fawcett admirably keeping all the irritation in the character rather than her performance), and the affably addled, bottom-pinching Uncle Willie (Frank Middlemass) even the nightwatchman on the family estate gets to break into a daft little dance routine; John Axon's cameo drew spontaneous applause. Praise, too, for Marie Francis as more than just the stereotyped tough press gal.

Abady's relocation of the play in the 1950s allows for slightly more flamboyant dress and sets, but otherwise does not impinge on the show. She succeeds in obtaining performances (most intelligibly from Baker, Mannion and Fawcett) which avoid loading the play with either more poise or more angst than it was meant to bear. Some English directors might have been tempted to go at full speed down Noël Coward Avenue, but such an approach would have resulted in an overwrought production. This is cheesecake, not meringue and in this version, it is cheesecake like Mama used to make.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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