Review by David Munro
ANYONE who has seen the charming Katharine Hepburn film or the
musical film and stage version – High Society -
will, when they get to The Old Vic find out how
creaky a vehicle The Philadelphia Story is when
exposed to the harsh glare of the foot lights.
The writers of the cinematic and musical transformations have
retained the charm of the story but avoided the rather turgid
and unfunny theatrical mannerisms with which Philip Barry has
invested his play.
Written as it was for Katharine Hepburn, he clearly relied on
her charm and abilities to tide him over the rough patches and
clearly she must have done this in view of its almost legendary
success (and as can be seen in the film).
Kevin Spacey must have realised this as he cast Jennifer Ehle
in the Hepburn part.
Miss Ehle is very much an actress in the same mould; an attractive,
vigorous persona who first came to my notice as a strong and very
persuasive Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s version of Pride
As Tracy Lord, she gives the same powerful performance, dominating
her mother, a rather subdued, in every sense, Julia Mackenzie,
and trying to control her wilful sister while fending off the
insidious advances of her former husband.
It is the performance which saves the play and her relaxation
into feminity in the last act was quite delightful, especially
as she made you realise that the tigress may have put on the mantle
of a lamb, but she was still a tigress nonetheless.
She is ably partnered by Kevin Spacey,
an actor who to my shame I must admit has rather passed me by
in his screen roles.
In the part of Dexter, Tracy’s first husband (the Cary
Grant/Bing Crosby role) he shows a nice touch for comedy and gives
the impression he is well able to cope with his strong-minded
and wilful wife to be.
The rest of the cast did not fare so well and I think much of
the blame must be laid at the door of Phillip Barry and the director,
The two main subsidiary characters, the journalist, Mike, and
photographer, Liz, although given some reality by DW Moffett and
Lauren Ward, respectively, still seemed to be more like cardboard
cut-outs with consciously witty lines than real life characters.
Julia McKenzie, as I have already indicated, did not seem to
know where to go with her role.
Nicholas Prevost, a character actor for whom I have some regard,
also seemed unable to overcome the pedestrian lines given to Tracy’s
uncle and so on.
I felt that Jerry Saks was treating the book as sacrosanct rather
than giving it the boot up the backside it required to give it
Nonetheless, I have to admit that given the two dynamic performances
in the leading roles and the very able attempts to overcome the
directorial obstacles by the rest of the cast, it was a pleasant
evening’s entertainment - more I cannot say.
PS The programme, at £4, is probably the worst value in
The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry.
Director – Jerry Saks.
Set Design – John Lee Beatty.
Costumes - Tom Rand.
Lighting – Hugh Vanstone.
Sound – Fergus O’ Hare.
CAST: Oliver Cotton; Jennifer Ehle; Nicholas Le Prevost; Richard
Lintern; Julia McKenzie; DW Moffett; Talulah Riley; Kevin Spacey;
The Old Vic. The Cut , SE1 8NB
Box Office: 020 7928 2651