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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Philadelphia Story
Old Vic Theatre       Spring-Summer 2005

Rich divorcee is about to be remarried when her first husband reappears. Specific details aside, you could write the rest of Philip Barry's classic American comedy yourself, and therein lies its charm.

It's a romantic comedy staple that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare - the feuding couple who are so obviously meant for each other that we can just sit back comfortably and wait to see how long it takes them to figure it out.

And it is a measure of how very good Barry's 1939 version is that much of its delight survives this very uneven and too often lifeless production.

I have almost never been troubled with the common theatregoer's experience of having memories of a movie get in the way of the stage production before me. But the 1940 film of The Philadelphia Story is one of the most perfect of screen comedies, and the sparkling performances of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant set a very high standard for any other actors to meet.

And the two leads here are so seriously disappointing that one just can't help preferring memories of the film.

As Tracy Lord, ice goddess who has to discover her own frailties to forgive those of others and thus be ready to love, Jennifer Ehle gives one of the most lumpen performances I have ever seen from a professional actress.

She almost seems to have a heavy cold and to be wandering around in an antihistamine haze, so little does she relate to anyone else and so rarely is she able to work up any hint of life behind her dead eyes.

Yes, I know the character is meant to be a bit of a stick, but the point is that we have to see the wit and energy that make her worth saving, and worth her ex-husband's love, and Ehle is just a shell with nobody home inside.

If any contemporary actor might be able to work up the sly charm of C.K. Dexter Haven - that is to say, if there were any contemporary equivalent of Cary Grant - one might well think of Kevin Spacey.

He knows how to snap out a zinger and how to let a line just float out there, waiting for us to catch up to it. And Spacey does manage, in a few of his scenes, to bring the play alive with the attractive intelligence and wit of the character.

But in too many other scenes, notably those in which Dex spars verbally with Tracy and tells her some home truths about herself, he's been allowed to play a biting and rather unattractive anger, with little sense of underlying humour or love to counterbalance it, and the play's comedy and romance are both soured.

With only a couple of exceptions, the rest of the cast is uniformly poor. Julia McKenzie as Tracy's mother brings some sparkle to the opening scene, but the character is then shooed offstage hardly ever to return.

And Nicholas Le Prevost may be doing a generic befuddled-old-coot as the befuddled old coot Uncle Willie, but he does it with such easy expertise that it is fun to watch.

Too many of the rest of the cast give performances barely above the amateur level, either shouting at the back wall or standing about awkwardly wondering what to do with their arms.

It is another case of Berkowitz's Law: When everyone in the cast is bad, and bad in the same ways, then the fault is the director's.

American director Jerry Zaks has had almost as many failures as hits in his career (To be fair, the good ones are very good, and the flops tend to be sad missteps rather than outright failures), and he has simply failed to guide his cast to the level of liveliness and charm the play demands and deserves. 

Rent the film.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Philadelphia Story - Old Vic Theatre 2005
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