Theatre in Wales

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High Society

Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August 5, 2001
High Society, the 1956 Cole Porter/Arthur Kopit musical based upon Phillip Bay's stage play The Philadelphia Story and the film adaptation of that play, is currently playing at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. In short, you'll like this, if this is the sort of thing you like. Biting social satire it isn't, although at times it pretends to be. Its failure in that vein is due to its writers' staunch refusal to push the envelope far enough to say something original or challenging about class, money, power, self-righteousness, and yellow journalism.

This production, directed by Deborah Shaw, with musical direction by Malcolm Newton, did showcase some great performances, including Helen Goldwyn's animated representation of the spoiled American "princess" Tracy Lord; and the muckraking reporters Liz (Loveday Smith) and Macaulay (Will Thorp), whose hatred of the "high society" people their tabloid magazine attacks masks their own frustration and self-hatred, derived from his disgust with his profession and her romantic frustration with him. The set, designed by Joe Fletcher, is perfect: depicting the Lords' house as a tiny, fake-looking doll-house in the upstage distance, separated from the spectator by a wide impassable lake. Emma Chapman's lighting lends depth and motion to that lake and the architecture in a way that seems to melt the two-dimensional structure of the set into something almost real, but in brighter colours.

The style of this play is an odd hybrid of film, 1920s musical-theatre, and drawing-room comedy, and the indecisive way in which is is staged in this production does not make this any better. In one scene, the Lord family sit on their patio, eating slice-of-life toast, eggs, and bacon without hardly moving, and the domestic workers stand in a stiff line behind a buffet table; in the next, all the actors participate in chorus-line dances, do the Charleston in unison, and face the audience with identical, seemingly glue-enhanced smiles. Either style, if used more consistently, might have made sense, but this simply looks fragmented and uninspired.

Although Porter does deliver a few good lines ("She's got the looks, the kind of looks/That make book censors enjoy their books") the lyrics are not quite what he was capable of twenty years earlier, in shows such as "Anything Goes." They're less topical, less daring, and more predictable. Some songs seem to have been hammered into the script at places in which they don't really fit. That may not be surprising, as Porter added the songs to an adaptation of a play, from which a non-musical film had already been made some time earlier. Many shadows from The Philadelphia Story haunt High Society: the character of Tracy Lord, in both physical description and personality, is the same role Katharine Hepburn always played. In this production, Goldwyn plays Hepburn with an uncanny accuracy that does not look like mere mimicry. Her performance is recognisable but it's also animated, vibrant, living. She's not playing a goddess-or a screen siren. In Goldwyn's performance, emotion comes through not only the mask of the woman her father compares to a "brass statue" but the stiff masks American musical theatre usually wears. Ultimately, the play is entertaining, which is maybe all it really asks to be.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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