The Philadelphia Story, Old Vic, London

Dated, but a crowd-pleaser
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Kevin Spacey's regime at the Old Vic has been so weirdly unconnected to the desires and instincts of the London theatre-going public that entering this historic theatre has, of late, been a bit like crossing into a parallel universe.

Kevin Spacey's regime at the Old Vic has been so weirdly unconnected to the desires and instincts of the London theatre-going public that entering this historic theatre has, of late, been a bit like crossing into a parallel universe.

First, there was Cloaca, by an unknown Dutch writer, which was like Art without, well, the art. Then there was National Anthems, a second-rate Eighties comedy, whose main claim to fame seems to have been that Spacey had starred in it once before (when he was the right age) in the States. I began to feel that he would have to apply for diplomatic immunity and run the place like an offshoot of the American Embassy. Well, it would have been a more appropriate status for it than living London theatre.

Which brings us to The Philadelphia Story. In terms of familiarity and audience-friendliness, you could say that this choice goes to the opposite extreme. It's almost as if this piece is being offered to the public like the chocolate that is given to a child as a reward for swallowing two nasty spoonfuls of medicine.

The movie version of Philip Barry's 1939 play (and the musical spin-off, High Society) are held in deeply affectionate regard. This factor, plus the presence of Spacey in the Cary Grant role, must account for the near-record £1.2m box-office advance. So it's already a hit financially. But how does it rate artistically?

Well, Jerry Zaks' handsomely designed production turns out be a respectable hit-and-miss affair. Though the part feels significantly shorter than in the movie, Spacey makes a strong, mischievous impact, oozing laidback dangerous charm as the playboy CK Dexter Haven, who insinuates himself back into the upper-class family home of his socialite former wife, Tracy Lord, on the eve of her remarriage to a parvenu coal tycoon.

Jennifer Ehle, playing Tracy, is no Katharine Hepburn. Her patrician put-downs and imperious manner lack the right thoroughbred comic spirit. Her de haut en bas manner should come across as effortless, but here you can sense the strain. She is a great deal better at conveying Tracy's scalded hurt and surprise when she discovers that people regard her as a cold virgin goddess with a snooty intolerance of human weakness. In the Jimmy Stewart role, as the snooping journo who becomes a rival for her favours, DW Moffett communicates the anti-toff chippiness but leaves out the charm.

The play version comes across as creakier and more dated than the movie. There were gasps from young women in the audience when Tracy is confronted by her stern, philandering father who tells her that if only she had been a blindly devoted daughter to him, he wouldn't have needed to cheat on her mother. "You didn't love me enough and that's why you are to blame for my peccadilloes" is the cry of the bounder down the ages. This male complacency, seemingly endorsed by the play, sticks in the craw.

Zaks paces the final scene, where Tracy unhitches herself from both her censorious fiancé and her platonic journo fling, with a real feel for the emotional gravity behind the frivolity, and Ehle rises to the occasion with aplomb. This play is a creative cousin of Noël Coward's Private Lives in that two formerly married people recognise themselves as soulmates and re-embrace only after getting spliced (or here almost getting spliced) to stuffy Mr Wrong. The difference is that in Coward, Elyot and Amanda are presented as aristocrats of the artistic spirit. Tracy and Dex are social aristocrats, too, and for all the lip service the drama pays to the notion that worth can be found in any class, it is significant that this well-bred pair oust the upstart businessman who stalks off like Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Unable to disguise the reactionary temper of the play, this revival is somewhat less than a total success story.

To 6 August (0870 060 6628)

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