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High Society – The Mill at Sonning | Review

A curious choice for a festive production, set as it is in the summer of 1958 (according to the show’s programme) in Long Island, New York State – the term ‘winter warmer’ doesn’t exactly come to mind. It was an era, however, when people still dressed smartly, even if there was the context of a wedding. Rather like Mamma Mia!, however, the wedding that is being prepared for is not the wedding that actually takes place. The lighting, at least from my vantage point, could have been brighter on occasion, as every so often, I couldn’t tell who was singing.

High Society. Photo credit Andreas Lambis.
High Society. Photo credit Andreas Lambis.

To an extent, the audience is meant to form a good number of the hundreds of invited guests for Tracy Lord’s (Victoria Serra) wedding to George Kitteridge (Will Richardson). Lord is a socialite, whose parents, Seth (Russell Wilcox) and Margaret (Heather Jackson), have a subplot of their own. Her younger sister, Dinah (Katlo, making her professional debut in this production), is still a schoolgirl, and much to Margaret’s consternation, hears and sees things that she probably shouldn’t, though let’s just say it’s unlikely she will have seen or heard anything she’ll end up recounting on a therapist’s bed decades later. Kitteridge, meanwhile, is a successful businessman – unlike many other characters in the show, he works for a living.

The musical, based on a 1939 comedy play called The Philadelphia Story, whilst also taking inspiration from the 1956 motion picture also called High Society, premiered in 1997. Involving some well-to-do people dancing the night away and drinking to excess, some of the action calls to mind the Downing Street parties of 2020 and 2021, a super-exclusive event, even if there was no questioning the legality of what the Lord family and their friends and acquaintances were doing. But the us-them barrier is somewhat broken by good use of the theatre space, which sees members of the company using the audience entrance/exit and aisles to enter and leave at various points. At the performance I attended, someone began speaking their next line before they reached the stage, causing a patron sat in an aisle seat, unable to see someone walking down from behind, to almost jump.

There are some fine voices in this company, particularly Matt Blaker’s Dexter Haven and Matthew Jeans’ Mike Connor. The male ensemble harmonies are a delight to listen to. Ultimately, though, the show exposes quite how snobby and pretentious the upper classes can be, which is, depending on one’s disposition, amusing or otherwise revolting, or (if you’re like me) a mixture of both: evidently, what some of them perceive to be a problem is far from insurmountable. The end result is something less classy, so to speak, that one might have imagined something called High Society to be.

But that appears to be precisely the show’s point: beneath the veneer of fashionable clothes and outward elegance, these are people whose lives are rather messy. And given the relatively pedestrian pace of the first half, there’s a temptation (not on my part, being on reviewing duty) to leave at the interval. After all, if anything, you will have had a very delicious hot meal courtesy of the theatre’s hospitality before the show (it’s included in the ticket price). You shouldn’t, however – patience is handsomely rewarded in the feisty and extended song and dance at the start of the second half.

It’s not quite the sort of musical where you can let proceedings wash over you – as we filed out for the interval, several patrons observed how they didn’t quite follow all the narrative elements (it all becomes clear by curtain call, of course). There’s nothing wrong with giving the audience something to think about, and all things considered, it’s a lively – if daft – night out.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Long Island socialite Tracy Lord is planning her lavish High Society nuptials with 700 guests and oceans of champagne. But who exactly will be the groom? Her fiancé – the self-made but boring George? Or her glamorous and dangerous ex-husband Dexter who turns up on the scene determined to win her back. Or maybe news reporter Mike Connor, who has been sent to cover the wedding for his tabloid paper and who falls head over heels in love with the captivating Miss Lord. Come and enjoy this swell party and find out which suitor she chooses.

Cole Porter’s classic feel-good musical is based on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and the 1956 film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Full of songs you know from’ True Love’ to ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, it is a Christmas extravaganza not to be missed.

It is directed by Joseph Pitcher fresh from his award-winning success with the Mill’s record-breaking production of ‘Gypsy’ (Best Musical Production at the 2023 UK Theatre Awards).

The cast is led by:
Matt Blaker (Dexter Haven) recently played Raoul in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in the West End and was Billy Bigelow in ‘Carousel’ at Kilworth House.
Matthew Jeans (Mike Connor) – his recent musicals include ‘White Christmas’, ‘Funny Girl’ and Singin’ in the Rain’.
Katlo (Dinah Lord) is making her professional debut.
Kurt Kansley (Uncle Willie) was recently Alfredo in ‘Pretty Woman’ in the West End and appeared in ‘Heathers’ and ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’.
Victoria Serra (Tracy Lord) – her musicals include ‘Titanic’, ‘Grand Hotel’ and ‘Parade’ and playing Sarah Brown in ‘Guys and Dolls’ at The Mill at Sonning.
Laura Tyrer (Liz Imbrie) was recently Tessie in ‘Gypsy’ at The Mill at Sonning and played Cricket in ‘Mother Goose’ alongside Ian McKellen.
With Tosca Fischer, Samuel How, Heather Jackson, Bethany Rose Lythgoe, Joe Press, Will Richardson, Callum Train, and Russell Wilcox.

Creative Team:
Joseph Pitcher – Director
Jason Denvir – Set Designer
Natalie Titchener – Costume Designer
Jaye Elster – Choreographer
Nic Farman – Co-Lighting Designer
Hector Murray – Co-Lighting Designer
Jerome van den Berghe – Musical Arranger / Supervisor
Chris Whybrow – Sound Designer
Tom Noyes – Musical Director
Casting – Pearson Casting CDG

LISTINGS INFO
HIGH SOCIETY
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Arthur Kopit
Additional Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead
Based on the play “The Philadelphia Story” by Philip Barry
Also based on the Turner Entertainment Co. motion picture “High Society”
Directed by Joseph Pitcher

29 November, 2023 – 20 January, 2024
The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Sonning Eye
Reading, RG4 6TY
www.millatsonning.com

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