Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 14
Reviewed by Mark Brown
In the early-20th century the Scottish theatre landscape looked very different from its current ecology. Although the country had many new theatre buildings, much of the work staged in them was on tour from England, often from London. Theatre in Scotland was still, to a considerable degree, part of the “provincial” touring set-up of Victorian Britain.
There is one area of present day Scottish theatre that continues to stubbornly resemble the situation of 100 years ago. When it comes to the stage musical, which is not short of fans in Scotland, the scene continues to be dominated by touring shows from south of the Border.
This, no doubt, has much to do with the economies of scale required to provide the glitz and glamour that lovers of the West End and Broadway musicals have become accustomed to. However, the relative lack of home-grown product remains one of the anomalies of Scottish theatre in the early-21st century.
Thank goodness, then, for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The “theatre in the hills” has well-and-truly established itself as Scotland’s leading producer of stage musicals.
The north Perthshire playhouse offers two musicals each year, one as part of its famous summer season, another at Christmas time (look out for Singin’ In The Rain in December). This year’s summer programme opens with a production of Cole Porter’s High Society.
Porter’s music and lyrics were originally written for the famous 1956 film starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra (and including a notable performance by Louis Armstrong). This stage version, with a book by Arthur Kopit and additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, premiered on Broadway in 1998.
The story takes us to a post-Second World War incarnation of the world inhabited by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The high society of the title is that of the stinking rich Lord family of Long Island.
Like many of the characters in Fitzgerald’s tales (or, for that matter, the plays of Noel Coward), socialite Tracy Samantha Lord combines an objectionable sense of entitlement with, her saving grace, a certain loucheness. Separated from her debonair ship designer ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy is on the brink of marrying the dull and conservative company executive (and wannabe politician) George Kittredge.
The play is set in the Lords’ mansion on the eve of the wedding, with a huge party in the offing, and reluctant hacks from a scandal sheet on the premises as fake guests. The apparently unscheduled arrival of Dexter Haven puts the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
The ensuing comedy (which involves more than a touch of Cowardish farce) is lubricated by a score that includes such well known numbers as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Well, Did You Evah?
The acting performances are universally strong, even if the same cannot quite be said of the singing, which is variable. That said, Sara Clark Downie is delightful as Tracy’s mischievous younger sister Dinah, while Cameron Johnson impresses as journalist Mike Connor.
The undoubted star of the show, however, is Helen Mallon who gives a fabulous performance as Tracy. Exuberant, despicable, even a little tragic, Mallon sings as splendidly as she acts in the demanding central role.
Director John Durnin runs a pretty tight ship, even if there were a few microphone problems towards the end of the show on opening night. Adrian Rees’s set (which neatly conflates the columns of the Lords’ grand house with those of a wedding cake) is the quintessence of intelligent design. All in all, it’s a pretty swell party indeed.
For performance dates, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 4, 2017
© Mark Brown