Theatre The Philadelphia Story Upper Campfield Market, Manchester

The Manchester story behind The Philadelphia Story is how a company stood in the street and watched the IRA's attack on the city bring the roof down on their theatre. If, infused with American spirit, they did not at that moment exactly say "let's do the show right here", the whole company has, in fact, damn near done that by opening, on time, just down the road in the engaging space of Castlefield's Upper Campfield Market.

Happily, the tale need not be soured by reporting that the production itself does not match the heroic effort to get it on. The New York director Josephine Abady gives Philip Barry's immaculate comedy (aka High Society) a stylish, witty, confident production that is wonderfully led by another American, Jordan Baker, as the heiress Tracy Lord.

Barry's piece, in an utterly different social setting, can be compared with the Exchange's previous offering, and bomb casualty, the superb production of Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes. Both are romantic comedies that forgive foibles, puncture the inflations of rectitude and educate the hearts of their characters. Both are also staffed with numerous characters of immediate interest and evident depth, and constructed with an art that reminds us of the achievement possible within strong conventions.

Barry is, however, the more sentimental of the two. The events of the night help Tracy find her way off the pedestal of her own impeccability, but her last-minute realisation that her future fulfilment is to be found after all with the effortlessly superior repose of Dexter Haven rather than the parvenu thruster George Kittridge (Stephen Hogan), without admitting the possibility of life without either, does answer the reins of romance a little too promptly.

But, as the hard-bitten hack Mike Connor says, "with the rich and mighty always a little patience". Jordan Baker more than earns that patience from us. Imperiously tall and intimidatingly sophisticated, she does seem to condescend from the moon. She knocks the chippy, seen-it-all Connor off his feet first with disbelief then with wonder, but most impressively conveys the fervour of her undammed emotions with complete credibility. The drunken love scene with the excellent Richard Hawley's always rumpled and sweat-filmed Connor quivers with energy and complex sexual tension. Whether stumbling about in a myopic hangover or standing up to the full blast of self-knowledge, Baker gives a performance of comic virtuosity touched with real sympathy.

Among the uniformly strong support, Tom Mannion is a bit too self-effacing but his timing is spot-on. As kid sister Dinah, Lindsey Fawcett's rendition of the "Banana Boat Song" is precocity personified and John Axon's intermezzo as the night-watchman deserves its ovation.

The Philadelphia Story is the kind of work that can get civilisation a bad name - "veneer" and "trivial" appear in the usual disparagements. But triviality is one gift of civilisation and if the alternative includes the circumstances surrounding this production, then three cheers for veneer.

n Upper Campfield Market to 24 August (0161-833 9833)

JEFFREY WAINRIGHT

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