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High Society

by on 31 October 2018

Glitzy Glitterati Rediscovers True Love

High Society

by Cole Porter

BROS Theatre Company at Richmond Theatre until 3rd November

Review by Mark Aspen

True love: well, it “never did run smooth” says Shakespeare’s Lysander. True love: does wealth get in its way? True love: Will it win out in the end?

True love so much a theme in Cole Porter’s musical comedy High Society that the central musical number is called True Love. And this is just what glamorous American socialite Tracy Samantha Lord has lost and is trying to find, as it seems are most of her household, her family and friends.


The glamour and glitz of High Society is BROS’s commemorative show to celebrate the company’s 110th year. For almost half its lifetime, Richmond Theatre has been BROS’s prime venue and is a suitably opulent choice for its special blockbuster musical, the 1998 version of High Society, a concatenation of earlier plays and musical versions, and of two films, variously starring Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelly as Tracy.

Tracy is the jewel of the Long Island glitterati. It is the summer of 1938 and her household, family and friends are making last minute preparations for her extravagant wedding to successful businessman George Kittredge, who just happens to own a few gold mines.

Then who should swan along, sailing his yacht along the estuary up to the Lord estate, but Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven. The name of the yacht … True Love!

The plot thickens when gossip columnists, Mike Macaulay Connor and Liz Imbrie arrive pretending to be guests, whilst covering the wedding for the tabloid Spy. It seems that Dexter has discovered that Spy is planning an exposé of Tracy’s father Seth, who is having an affair with a dancer. It is Dexter’s idea to invite them and cover up the situation by passing off the absent-minded Uncle Willie as the absent husband Seth.


Confusion abounds, lubricated by copious amounts of alcohol at the wedding eve party. At the Lord mansion, the oiling of the party is run smoothly by the coordinated team of the domestic staff, and BROS’s skilful ensemble of an octet of Singing Servants moves the show along like clockwork, setting the scene and commenting on the action like a glitzy Greek chorus.

Well, Did You Evah! … “What a swell party this is”, they all sing as romantic relationships are discovered, rediscovered or uncovered; assignations engineered or thwarted; and bonds broken or created by True Love.


In this swirling melting pot of passions, the unlikely catalyst to the chemistry is Tracy’s precocious pre-pubescent sister, Dinah. “Out of the mouths of babes”, but then again Dinah is perceptive well beyond her years. Thirteen year-old Alice Bonney shines as Dinah. Confident, vibrant and fluent, she puts across the witty, incisive nature of the prematurely worldly-wise shrew. Dinah’s duet with Tracy, the “so, so Fren-ch” sororal spoof, I Love Paris is great fun.

High Society is largely Tracy’s story, and the leading role of Tracy Lord is a gift for the award-winning Heather Stockwell, whose vivacious performance lights up the part. Tracy’s path is one of self-discovery, and Stockwell makes that emotional journey lightly, without losing the sense of joie de vivre that is the essence of Tracy. Although we are treated to a number of group songs featuring Tracy, she has only one real solo, It’s All Right With Me, beautifully executed by Stockwell, but the star centrepiece is True Love, a duet with Dexter, sung with depth, precision and warmth by both singers. Upstage of the duet, we learn, by way of a dance vignette, that Dexter and Tracy were childhood sweethearts. The child dancers, Evan Huntley-Robertson and Lilah Rose Jones are charming, but overextending this conceit to a pair of less fluid adult dancers does distract somewhat from the key moment of the whole story, when we realise that Dexter really is the one for Tracy.


So poor old fiancé George is left high and dry. Even his panegyrical solo to Tracy sounds like a plea, I Worship You , which is sung with vigour by Jason Thomas. He is compelling as George and plays the role as a basically well-intentioned man, but one whose high principles are at odds with the louche Lord milieu.

Nick Moorhead portrays Dexter as a genial and dynamic man, with a ready wit, but one determined to regain his ex-wife. We don’t know why they parted, but we see that both have in truth regretted it. Dexter is not above manipulating everyone’s feelings though, and even gives a model to of his yacht True Love to Tracy as a pre-nuptial present. It has happy memories of their being together, and later, when more sure of his ground, he offers her the real yacht. Moorhead’s singing is rich and strong, and is given full rein in Just One of Those Things, Dexter’s nostalgic reminiscence “that our love affair was too hot not to cool down”.

The journalists, Mike and Liz appear at the start of the evening as a pair of sub-Guardian lefties, but the socialite lifestyle very rapidly seduces them. Mike is soon transformed via a champagne (Veuve Clicquot to be precise) socialist into a full blown sybaritic socialite. The prime mover of his transformation? … Tracy’s charms of course; although at the end he does redeem himself as a gentleman, by not taking bedroom advantage of his hostess when the opportunity (literally) falls his way. You’re Sensational, sings Mike, a solo that showcases the rich baritone of Jacob Botha, who nicely portrays the earnest yet conflicted Mike. Conflicted in a different way, by an unrequited yearning for Mike, is Liz, whom he initially regards as his photographer colleague and partner in dirt-dishing. But Mike cannot see a sassy Liz whose dishes are more wholesome fare. Bex Wood, in this part, shows all the frustrations of Liz’s predicament, beautifully expressed in her solo He’s a Right Guy, delivered in a soft but sturdy mezzo.

The hapless Liz does however, catch the eye of another man, who pursues her relentlessly, the slightly eccentric and highly-forgetful Uncle Willie, who asserts I’m Getting Myself Ready for You, a great comic duet with Liz. However, later having become, at his own admission, increasingly sozzled, Uncle Willie believes that you should Say It with Gin and that’s how he says it. BROS stalwart Carl Smith again proves himself a great comic actor and singer as the harmless pre-senile Uncle Willie.

Staying with the older generation to complete the circle, we find that Tracy’s parents Margaret and Seth also rediscover that their love affair was too hot not to cool down, and so their marriage is rescued. Rachel Williams sparkles as Margaret Lord, as the very much on-the-ball mother, and leading the quartet in Throwing a Ball Tonight reveals a strong and rich singing voice. Martin Wilcox, one of BROS’s longer standing members who knows the Richmond stage well, is very much relaxed in the role of Seth Lord, inhabiting the suave character of man who knows who is boss.

Since much of the musical is taken up with the wedding eve party, there is even more dancing in High Society than in many musicals. With sometimes two dozen dancers on the stage, choreographer Jen Moorhead has her work cut out, and as with all club companies her dancers vary in their experience. Her attention to detail is obvious and dance highlights include her high-kicking girls from the Featured Dancers and the big ensemble piece that opens the second act and merges into Let’s Misbehave (which speaks for itself!). This incorporates a range of Latin styles, including Charleston, Rhumba, and (perhaps anachronistically) Salsa.

Dancing is helped by a fairly open stage, largely a backpiece of the façade of the Lord mansion. Some scenery is flown in, but the trucked trellises for the garden are rather repetitively used. Ed Pagett’s lighting design adds much atmosphere. Suzy Deal’s costume design is colourful, nicely in period and wonderfully coordinated. (One very small niggle though is why do the men often appear with ties undone? Everyone else looking so smart, it really jars. It seems to have started with a tic of Frank Sinatra’s, but now is a cliché. Maybe Sinatra didn’t know how to tie a bow.)

As often, the unsung heroes of a musical are to be found in the pit, and an excellent ten-piece band under musical director Janet Simpson, keep a good pace to the evening. The versatility of the band pays off in tweaking the nuances in the score, and a well-balanced sound is enthusiastically delivered.

As BROS’s glittering anniversary offering, director Deb McDowell brings a slickly oiled production to the well-oiled party that is High Society, ensuring that true love really can run smooth.

Mark Aspen
October 2018

Photography by Paul Nicholas Dyke

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