High society hijinks

The Philadelphia Story (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

February 24 – March 18

In 1942, Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” was the inaugural program of the short-run series titled “Victory Theatre”, which saw CBS relinquish the Monday night time normally occupied by “Lux Radio Theatre”, in dedication to the American war effort. All actors as well as directors, producers, and sponsors donated their talents and resources to the effort, including the play’s producer Cecil B DeMilne and its stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Virginia Weidler, all of whom also appeared in the 1940 hit movie. It is appropriate, therefore, that in New Farm Nash Theatre’s production of the radio play, 20% of the box office takings are being donated to Mate4Mates in support of current and ex-serving Australian Defence force members suffering as a result of their service.

Also, appropriate is the authenticity of the stage setup, complete with a row of microphone stands across the stage front, ‘on air’ and ‘applause’ signs and a government bond advertisement to punctuate its acts. Approaching the microphones in turn from the seated positions, the performers, dressed in the finery of bowties, tuxes and evening gowns, deliver the play from in-hand scripts in a dramatised, acoustic performance, unusually before audience eyes.

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The use of manual sound effects from a station towards the back of stage adds interest in its preservation of this aspect of the art of the golden age of radio drama. Although the sound effects are initially distracting, things soon settle into the action at the stage front allowing them to ultimately work well in provision of the background ambience to the script’s privileged Philadelphia parties. A live piano accompaniment from Stuart Crisp also adds atmosphere of the big band/swing sort to these social scenes.

Everything about the production is suited to its comedy of manners approach to high society hijinks. The witty script is filled with a clever comedy of stereotypes and innuendo even about the word innuendo as heiress Tracy Lord (Jane Hamer) prepares to marry nouveau riche George Kittredge (James Bacskay), admiring his success despite his lack of privilege. The local society rag wants to cover the ‘wedding of the year’ and two tabloid journalists, poet/reporter Mike Connor (Nathaniel Young) who has the bad fortune to fall in love with Tracy the night before her wedding, and photographer Liz Embrie (Alexia Ashby) appear as guests to get the scoop in exchange for not exposing Tracy’s father, Seth Lord’s (Steve Tonks) philandering. Enter Tracy’s ex-husband, fellow socialite C.K. Dexter Haven (Brendan James) and amiable chaos ensues in a witty script jam-packed with jibes between, for example, Tracy and her sister Dinah (Elleith Houlihan) that are perhaps more easily appreciated when presented in this predominantly verbal radio play format with just scant physical cues from those at the microphone.

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All of the main players make their mark, however, it is Jane Hamer, new to Nash Theatre, who anchors the production with her poised and polished vocal performance of the haughty, formal speech of wealthy Philadelphia society. Showing shades of Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, Tracy is her own favourite person, yet entirely loveable in her champagne tipsiness, married maiden sensibilities in conversation with her first husband and hyperbolic emotion in initial reaction to the appearance of Mike, the reporter. And in the hands of this vivid actress it is easy to see why men are falling at the character’s feet.

Nash Theatre’s “The Philadelphia Story” is a fast-paced yet sophisticated work. Its stylish romanticism is utterly charming, offering a light-hearted appeal to those audience members looking to step back in time for a while. And best of all, you don’t have to have familiar with its famous film or its musical remake “High Society” to appreciate the humour of its screwball comedy of remarriage.

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