Therry Theatre
The Arts Theatre
Until 09 Apr 2016

Review by Anthony Vawser

When a play from the past gets revived and restaged, it's a chance for theatregoers to be reminded of what worked in days gone by, and to put the play's capacity for survival to the test. The near-capacity crowd at opening night of this new production of "The Philadelphia Story" indicates a story that still carries a strong appeal for audiences, helped by Therry's general reputation for excellence.

The theme of human foibles gradually surfacing through a facade of wealth and power is still a juicy one, rich with the promise of sophisticated fun. In 1939, writer Philip Barry crafted a smart premise and created a cast of generally intriguing characters who bring it to life; his sense of wit results in a particularly clever running gag revolving around the word 'destiny', as well as the brilliance of Liz Imbrie observing – with the character's typical dryness – that to have another drink would be "tautological".

Director Kerrin White's familiarity with this material (he also staged the play some twenty-odd years ago) has translated to his producing a number of fine performances that help to engage and draw us into this show. The opening scene in particular is electric and sparkling to the extent that one is quickly hopeful this script will prove itself to be an evergreen classic, capable of withstanding the passage of time.

Unfortunately, the text retains the kind of outdated gender politics that could well make you cringe. It is enough to at least lend an unwelcome sour edge to the proceedings, a more-than-faint feeling of "The Taming of the Shrew", that tends to leave this play at least partly a prisoner of the era that produced it.

The team at Therry have given us a superbly designed set (by director White and the late Vinnie Eustace), impeccably decorated, complete with authentic piano and chandelier. With the exception of an anachronistic feeling to young Dinah's casual wear, costumes (by Gillian Cordell and Ian Rigney) are well-appointed and suitable, even adding subtle humour to certain moments. Ray Trowbridge's sound design adds just what is needed, during both the action and scene changes.

Lauren Renee's portrayal of central character Tracey Lord is the ideal mixture of sweet and sour, strong and smart; you can believe in both her instinct for independence as well as her reserves of humanity. Ron Densley's well-spoken and skilfully modulated performance as brother Sandy helps ensure – especially in the important first act – that plot exposition is delivered swiftly, pleasurably, and comprehensibly. Zoë Dibb is simply spot-on as photographer/artist Liz, threatening to steal the show away with her expert timing and intonation.

James Whitrow is a strong physical presence on stage, but he brings a real sense of gentle intrigue to his portrayal of reporter (and wanna-be novelist) Macaulay Connor. Celine O'Leary nicely manages to make about as much of an impression as the somewhat limited character of Mrs Lord will allow, and Roman Turkiewicz bravely tackles some of the play's more overtly chauvinistic dialogue while playing Seth Lord, philandering man-of-the-house.

John Leigh Grey is here in his second go-around playing Uncle Willie, and while he does not convince as an American, he does deliver a sublime comic performance that is a pleasure to watch. Henny Walters makes precocious Dinah adorably full-of-beans and in-your-face, though her energy level dies down perhaps a little too much in the middle of the play. Brad Martin's doomed fiancé George is a bright and appealing presentation of a slick, superficial, well-meaning man.

The approach taken toward the crucial character of CK (Dexter) Haven is likely to divide audiences, and has the potential to colour one's reaction to the show in general. Aaron MacDonald seems to have been directed to play Tracey's first husband as predominantly serious and sullen. The unfortunate result is that this reviewer wanted the bright and vivacious Tracey to keep as far away from this guy as possible (slight spoiler: she doesn't).

The relative brevity of Dexter's appearances in the opening act also do very little to endear him to us. Barry's dialogue eventually helps to establish that the central divorced couple know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well, but MacDonald's delivery tends to be low and threatening in a way that seems at odds with the overall tone of this show, while his demeanour implies that he's only hanging around his ex-wife out of devious spite. This actor clearly has strengths, but they seem more suited to an Arthur Miller psychological drama than to "The Philadelphia Story".

This production is blessed with a number of strengths that make it a more-than-watchable entertainment, but while it produces a fairly steady stream of sparks, it somehow never quite catches fire and bursts into satisfying life. Perhaps the text itself is now finding it difficult to avoid – or conceal - the signs of ageing.