High Society, Crucible, Sheffield; <br></br>The Rose and the Ring, Hen and Chickens, London

Not so much a swell party, more a little ripple

Kate Bassett
Sunday 30 December 2001 01:00 GMT

Even the servants look swish in High Society. Throughout Fiona Laird's production of this comic-romantic musical by Cole Porter, housemaids swirl through their chores in silken uniforms – just one step away from haute couture. They're bustling because Miss Tracy Lord is to marry George, a self-made millionaire, and her genteel family are hosting a ball beforehand. Some risqué partner-swapping will, however, precede those wedding bells. Mike, the snooping left-wing reporter, finds himself drawn to the bride and Tracy's first husband, Dexter, is still attached by the heart-strings.

The trouble with this show is that, although Stephen Brimson Lewis's costumes and neoclassical set are chic, other aspects aren't polished. Laird incorporates some extra dialogue from Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story (Porter's original theatrical source), yet the plot proves bemusingly jerky compared to the vintage screen musical (with Grace Kelly, Sinatra and Crosby). To take just one example, Laird has Mike and his sweetheart Liz precipitately reunited at the close without any reconciliatory words.

Beyond that, undetailed acting (with few longing glances exchanged) leaves one feeling everybody's happy-ever-after is askew. Ian Duncan's Dexter ultimately steps forward as the groom, yet he's been hopelessly bland from the off. Mark Meadows' George, supposedly an awful rigid fellow, has actually been more attractively funny, jiving through the night with absurdly stiff limbs.

Many songs are added from Porter's archive as well. Often the lyrics seem adrift from the action or positively confusing due to unclear interpretations. One expects a romance to develop between Dexter and Kate Arneil's Liz after they slip into, 'In The Still Of The Night' as harmonising lonely hearts. Only that leads nowhere. On the other hand, several hit numbers fit perfectly in spirit, not least 'Let's Misbehave.' The cast gets rolling with that one, doing a Latin shimmy.

Jenna Russell's Tracy also sings 'It's All Right With Me' – as she verges on accepting second best in love – with both abandon and surging melancholy. Moreover, she's splendidly funny and vigorously go-getting once rollicking drunk and heading for the swimming pool. It's just a shame that too many others have diluted pheromones and get drowned out by the band.

There's nothing remotely muffled about The Rose and the Ring, a new musical boisterously adapted from a comic fairy tale by William Thackeray. The Hen and Chickens pub theatre is cosy in the extreme; Lucy Skilbeck's 10-strong cast can hardly squeeze on stage. But they're a talented young bunch - with impressive track records - and when they fill their lungs to chorus the title song, it's a blast.

This is a yarn about the power of love that centres around vain princesses, a naïve prince, and an impeccably sweet chambermaid (who's royal by birth). Anyone who gets possession of the titular magic items appears gorgeous to others, so young Prince Giglio keeps adoring different ladies. That's until he grows to profoundly love the maid, Betsinda, beyond the allure of her (obviously symbolic) little jewel.

The show wouldn't stand up in more sophisticated surrounds. Composer Michael Jeffrey's tunes are all catchy but the book and lyrics by Peter Morris are more jolly than ingenious. Paul Keating who plays Giglio – though he starred as Tommy in the West End – is also disappointingly dead behind the eyes.

This hardly matters though when gangly Jeremy Worsnip and stumpy Oliver Senton are thoroughly enjoying themselves as vaudeville villains and all the women are storming. Louisa McCarthy sparkles wickedly as spoilt Princess Angelica, Joanna Kirkland's Betsinda has purity, and Sally Bourne as ugly Countess Gruffanuff is really rocking when she belts out 'I Can't Wait' and envisages being queen. Rumbustious fun.


'High Society': Crucible, Sheffield (0114 249 6000), to 26 January; 'The Rose and the Ring': Hen and Chickens, London N1 (020 7704 2001), to Saturday

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