Joe Stilgoe the piano man holds the stage as we settle, receiving a fusillade of unhelpful audience requests (“Bolero! Summertime! Pink Panther! Prokoffiev’s ninth!” – that last from Andrew Marr, cheeky monkey). Brilliantly, he delivers them simultaneously, singing Summertime over Bolero chords, and getting audience participation in Fever. Crafty to set a cabaret mood  before we get down to business with “Come see the rich of Oyster Bay / On this their daughter’s wedding day!” as the silver piano sinks ingeniously into the floor.

Some of us needed persuading: for all the glory of Louis Armstrong, Sinatra and Bing, I never enthused about the 1956 film : Grace Kelly draped on that yacht crooning True Love felt like being pelted with marshmallows. Didn’t even like the play The Philadelphia Story, one of Kevin Spacey’s first productions here. Caring about the romantic troubles of the East Coast plutocracy is not automatic: so what if Tracy is marrying the wrong man, misses her first husband and gets drunkenly entangled with an undercover reporter? Brittle high-society needs Coward wit or period distance not to irritate.

But this – Spacey’s last hurrah as Artistic Director – is a different beast from film or play: Arthur Kopit’s book has access to extra Cole Porter songs, with all their bitter-sentimental ambiguities and yearnings. Director Maria Friedman has cast it cannily and enlists Nathan Wright’ s athletic, joyful storming, whirling choreography and fabulous Tom Pye designs (I am a bit of a pushover for people tap-dancing on silver pianos, it’s a weakness). So once it gets going – the first act, to be brutal, still needs a trim – Friedman finds the real gold, an emotional reality in the wayward heroine, in the tough lovelorn girl reporter (Annabel Scholey) and even in the repentant adulterous paterfamilias. Above all, Kate Fleetwood as Tracy eschews all temptation to easy ingenue charm, evoking a tough egg who has been round the block a few times and is well on the way to being a discontented rich-bitch. So when she sings “Once upon a Time” and softens, melting into memory of sailing days with Dexter – the True Love – there is suddenly real feeling. He lean on the orchestra rail above, she watches a model cutter glide slowly across the floor (poor sail-trim, but pretty). And in the second half, Kopit brilliantly places Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me” as a serious dramatic moment.

All the singing is bang on: Rupert Young is Dexter, hampered by the essential dullness of any romantic hero, Jamie Parker has wicked fun with Mike, Jeff Rawle totters and taps gloriously as daft Uncle Willy and and Richard Grieve as Kittredge the wrong-groom looks pleasingly like Michael Howard, with an apt air of pained dignity. And the ensemble is tremendous, the formal maids and butlers a character in their own right.
The Vic is still “in-the-round’, a beloved Spacey innovation, and the arena – with cast dashing in from all directions – gives an unexpected warmth and immediacy . We are a circle of witnesses to a lantern-lit night by the pool, to awful hangovers (Fleetwood hilarious as a drunk, and even better as an appalled morning-after bride shoved anyhow into her wedding dress) . Most spectacular of all, we are sitters-out, enthralled, at the tremendous ball. That Act 2 opener is fifteen minutes of explosive, butterfly-bright spectacle not to be missed: what with the firework light effects, the tap routines, the multicoloured taffeta explosion, double-bass-twirling and crazy brush-percush, and what I can only describe as a bout of competitive homo-erotic piano duetting. Well, you had to be there. As Tracy says about the yacht, it’s designed with care, built with love, and emerges “easy to handle, quick on the helm”. Fit for Kevin Spacey’s last sail into the Old Vic sunset. We thank him.
box office 0844 8717628 http://www.oldvictheatre.com to 20 August

Rating four    4 Meece Rating


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