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Ehle and Spacey deliver dynamic performances that make The Philadelphia Story worthy of acclaim

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 and Prejudice.

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, Jerry Saks.

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 life.

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 London!

Buy tickets!

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; Lauren Ward.
The Old Vic. The Cut , SE1 8NB
Box Office: 020 7928 2651

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