High Jinks And Horrid Hacks

A revival of a classic satire on social mobility, a debunking of tabloid editors, and a deflating of Boris

Politics Satire Theatre
Spoiled but spirited: Kate Fleetwood as Tracy Lord in “High Society” (photo: Johan Persson)

When High Society morphed from Broadway hit to MGM star vehicle for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1940, a reviewer noted that the story of the spoilt but spirited heiress bent on remarriage to a stiff parvenu while pursued by her suave ex had “everything that a blue-chip comedy should have: a witty, romantic script and the flavour of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate”.

The patrons have luxuriated in this cracking tale of social mobility ever since. Now Maria Friedman, the doyenne of musical theatre, reincarnates High Society at the Old Vic with Kate Fleetwood playing Tracy Lord and Rupert Young her estranged other half, C.K. Dexter Haven.

From the Barnumesque beginning — the absurdly talented pianist Joe Stilgoe improvising a segue from random audience suggestions — Friedman works to the old recipe that says a musical must delight and distract us from the burdens of mere rationality. It’s played in the round, so much of the stalls audience has the feeling of being close enough to the Lord dynasty to smell the breakfast bacon (in a nice touch, the real thing sizzles on stage) and eavesdrop on the high jinks. “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” sniffs Mike Connor (Jamie Parker), the scruffy tabloid reporter derailed by the attractions of Tracy.

Kate Fleetwood in the starring role has a spirited go at the part of Oyster Bay goddess. Her version is sharper,  more angular — and a good deal broader and louder than her forebears. If there is an element of sending up the original, it is a wiser choice than imitation.

In the rollicking French shepherdess scene, Fleetwood and her droll, small sister Dinah (Ellie Bamber) cast a huge wink at the world of privilege they inhabit. Small parts shine. Barbara Flynn is pitch-perfect as the matronly Mother Lord, reunited with her philandering husband — and disguising a tinge of backache the morning after.

Friedman makes concessions to a more sceptical 21st-century audience. The staff, although impeccable when their employers are around, slouch and smoke with the odd sulky sigh when backs are turned. Visual jokes are canny too. An iconic Barbara Hepworth sculpture is left discarded in the ante-room “where they put all the things they don’t know what to do with”, announces the butler, icily depositing Mike alongside it. The joy of this tale is that it knows how to have its cake and eat it.

The magnificant oddity of both High Society and The Philadelphia Story is that they are built on perpetual snobbery.  As a self-made man who does not know his yachting terms, Tracy’s fiancé George Kittredge is never really in with a shout. I thought this part came off rather worse here than in the original, where at least the arriviste gets a brief chance before being seen off by wily Dexter. Are we not as in love with social mobility as we like to think? I only ask. Pass the Negroni: it’s gone eleven.

Tabloid hacks are the subject of Clarion, the latest in a slew of plays telling liberal London audiences who never read tabloid newspapers how reprehensible they are. The Arcola’s contribution to the regular theatrical whipping of the press is, however, saved by balancing savagery and wit. Mark Jagasia, Clarion’s author, is a veteran of showbiz journalism and, for all the bleak madness of the plot, the fundamentals feel sound. Morris Honeyspoon (Greg Hicks) is the editor, so deranged by his quest to save the country from immigrants, Keynesians and poofters that he is distracted from the machinations of its grubby management and seeks vindication in the ritual humiliation of his staff. Hicks captures the manic drive of the more high-octane editors, forcing his young “immigration editor” to stand on a chair in penitence when he dares to say a story doesn’t stand up — and beeping a horn when he wants the conversation to move on.

The emotional heart of the play is Verity Stokes (Clare Higgins), a defiant old soak whose defence against redundancy is a well-burnished record as a war correspondent. Asked by Pritti (Laura Smithers), the dim but ambitious new girl, to explain the staging posts of her career, Stokes raps, “Berlin 1989, Vukovar, Syria . . .” A puzzled Pritti ponders and responds, “But I don’t want to work on the travel desk.” Zingers like these keep the plot careering along under Mehmet Ergen’s assured direction. Jagasia’s stroke of brilliance is surely the astrologer who, in the best Greek tradition, turns against his powerful paymasters, and instead of urging readers to seek new opportunities informs them that the end of days is nigh.

It is all good, dirty fun. Yet there is an uncomfortable inversion at the heart of theatreland’s take on the popular press. Here, the potential comeuppance is a native British suicide bomber, driven to his foul deeds by the toxic nonsense of the right-wing press. We do have suicide bombers, but they weren’t created by splash headlines about immigration.

Another gleeful bout of political caricature is offered in Kingmaker, one of those Edinburgh festival hits transferred to a cheery pop-up venue — in this case above the Arts Theatre — now enlivening the West End, not least by the welcome innovation of having a bar inside the auditorium.

Parallels with the great man-child who runs London are screamingly clear even if Alan Cox, who plays Max Newman (i.e. Boris), looks more like the kind of chunky, self-assured Tory who used to stalk the Palace of Westminster in the John Major era. What he lacks in physical similarity he makes up for in brio, promising to bring the party “the fizz of champagne, not cava”. Joanna Bending is Eleanor Hopkirk, an ageing minx and Tory whip who seeks to derail Max’s push for the leadership in revenge for the death of her brother. It’s all very Jacobean: but then, politics frequently is.

Writers Robert Khan (a barrister and local councillor) and Tom Salinsky ably grasp Bozzer’s evasions and contortions. What the play lacks is any sense of why it all matters. Eleanor fears for the party’s future if Max wins, but we are baffled as to why. Is he too right-wing? Too left-wing? Or just too Boris?

Just when we have all the characters and their foibles established, the play abruptly stops. It’s a good example of why what work s as a miniature joy at the Edinburgh Festival often struggles to make the journey south. It’s a delicious squib, but one with enough spirit and panache to keep us entertained. C.K. Dexter Haven would have approved.