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Spoiled but spirited: Kate Fleetwood as Tracy Lord in “High Society” (photo: Johan Persson)

When High Society morphed from Broadway hit to MGM star vehicle for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in 1940, a reviewer noted that the story of the spoilt but spirited heiress bent on remarriage to a stiff parvenu while pursued by her suave ex had “everything that a blue-chip comedy should have: a witty, romantic script and the flavour of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate”.

The patrons have luxuriated in this cracking tale of social mobility ever since. Now Maria Friedman, the doyenne of musical theatre, reincarnates High Society at the Old Vic with Kate Fleetwood playing Tracy Lord and Rupert Young her estranged other half, C.K. Dexter Haven.

From the Barnumesque beginning — the absurdly talented pianist Joe Stilgoe improvising a segue from random audience suggestions — Friedman works to the old recipe that says a musical must delight and distract us from the burdens of mere rationality. It’s played in the round, so much of the stalls audience has the feeling of being close enough to the Lord dynasty to smell the breakfast bacon (in a nice touch, the real thing sizzles on stage) and eavesdrop on the high jinks. “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” sniffs Mike Connor (Jamie Parker), the scruffy tabloid reporter derailed by the attractions of Tracy.

Kate Fleetwood in the starring role has a spirited go at the part of Oyster Bay goddess. Her version is sharper,  more angular — and a good deal broader and louder than her forebears. If there is an element of sending up the original, it is a wiser choice than imitation.

In the rollicking French shepherdess scene, Fleetwood and her droll, small sister Dinah (Ellie Bamber) cast a huge wink at the world of privilege they inhabit. Small parts shine. Barbara Flynn is pitch-perfect as the matronly Mother Lord, reunited with her philandering husband — and disguising a tinge of backache the morning after.

Friedman makes concessions to a more sceptical 21st-century audience. The staff, although impeccable when their employers are around, slouch and smoke with the odd sulky sigh when backs are turned. Visual jokes are canny too. An iconic Barbara Hepworth sculpture is left discarded in the ante-room “where they put all the things they don’t know what to do with”, announces the butler, icily depositing Mike alongside it. The joy of this tale is that it knows how to have its cake and eat it.

The magnificant oddity of both High Society and The Philadelphia Story is that they are built on perpetual snobbery.  As a self-made man who does not know his yachting terms, Tracy’s fiancé George Kittredge is never really in with a shout. I thought this part came off rather worse here than in the original, where at least the arriviste gets a brief chance before being seen off by wily Dexter. Are we not as in love with social mobility as we like to think? I only ask. Pass the Negroni: it’s gone eleven.

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