Review by Daz Gale
Regular visitors to this website will know that the picturesque Mill at Sonning is one of our favourite theatres to visit outside of London. Just a short journey on a train (or the Elizabeth Line when it works) from Paddington, it is home to a stunning theatre where you get a two-course meal along with a high-quality show. If the standards of their productions are impressive throughout the year (with this summer’s production of Gypsy winning a UK Theatre award), it is the annual Christmas musical that really excites. The previous two year’s have seen their phenomenal production of Top Hat but for this year’s offering, it’s another classic as a revival of High Society premieres there. Will it meet the high standards they have set for themselves in previous years?
Based on The Philadelphia Story, High Society began life as a 1956 musical movie starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. It was adapted for the stage in 1998 where it debuted in Broadway and has since enjoyed multiple productions in the West End. High Society is set in Oyster Bay, Long Island in the summer of 1958 where Tracy Lord’s planned wedding George Kitteredge doesn’t go according to plan thanks to an unwelcome blast from the past. As relationships are formed, broken and revisited, the champagne flows as we all wonder if a wedding will take place at all.
With a book written by Arthur Kopit, High Society is a fun and frivolous story whose fairly modern adaptation keeps the essence of the 1950s original to create a truly timeless story that feels like a time capsule in itself. As we step into the 1950s world of the Lord family and all their associates, it allows for pure escapism as the glorious and often witty writing sets sail throughout, all the while leading in to the next show-stopping number and never attempting to tax your brain too much. Whether you are familiar with the story or not, it is not too hard to follow and is reminiscent of another much-loved and recently revived classic, Anything Goes.
If the story is a harmless piece of fun in its own right, it’s the inclusion of the music that really lifts the production, with music and lyrics from the legendary Cole Porter never failing to raise a smile. From the title track ‘High Society’, the brilliant ‘Let’s Misbehave’ and the seminal classic ‘Let’s Do It’, experiencing these songs in a natural musical setting allows for an effortlessly grand and glorious use of storytelling.
Joe Pitcher’s direction takes this joyous story and timeless music and adapts them into a new and exciting production through some inspired choices, making full use of the Mill at Sonning’s always impressive yet intimate space, with a great design by Jason Denvir. It is the inclusion of Jaye Elster’s choreography which really wows, particularly on the larger than life ensemble performance of ‘Let’s Misbehave’ and an undoubted standout in the precise and perfect ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ which in itself should be a final answer in how to stage a well-regarded number in a way that will knock the socks off of everybody present.
This production of High Society is one where every element gets its own chance to shine, with some complex and creative use of lighting cues, designed by Nic Farman and Hector Murray, and a clear use of sound design from Chris Whybrow, using tricks to amplify and fade out voices to often humorous effect.
An utterly wonderful cast have been assembled to take on this story with Victoria Serra leading the pack as Tracy Lord. In a captivating performance, she playfully allows her character to be the butt of her joke as her serious façade ebbs away in some brilliantly farcical sequences. Will Richardson is extremely memorable as her suffering fiancée George Kitteridge while Matt Blaker shines as Tracy’s ex Dexter Haven, himself showcasing beautiful vocal abilities as well as no shortage of comic timing.
Matthew Jeans is a standout in the consistently striking cast in his role as Mike Connor, charming the pants off of everyone he meets (sometimes literally) in a brilliantly accomplished performance. Kurt Kanslet is a comic highlight as Uncle Willie while Heather Jackson and Laura Tyrer also delight as Mother Lord and Liz Imbrie. This production is one with no weak link, however, as every performer on that stage no matter how small the role, comes together to create one truly impressive cast.
Sometimes the old one’s are the best and there is something about experiencing this classic story and immortal tunes in person for the first time which once again reminded me of the timeless and vital nature of musical theatre. A broad production which appeals to a diverse audience, whether you are 8 or 88, The Mill at Sonning have done it again, taking an existing classic and putting their own stamp on it in a way that feels safe and secure, yet never failing to meet their own impossibly high standard. If you are looking for a slice of musical theatre heaven this festive season, High Society is the perfect production for you. If you are on the fence of getting a ticket for this, perhaps due to its location being slightly outside of London, my advice would be to go ahead and do it as you will surely fall in love.
High Society plays at The Mill at Sonning until 20th January 2024. Tickets from www.millatsonning.com
Photos by Andreas Lambis